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3 arrested in connection to church burglaries in Fort Smith

Three people were arrested in connection to several church burglaries around the Fort Smith area.

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Three people have been arrested in connection to a string of church burglaries in the River Valley.

According to the Fort Smith Police Department (FSPD), around 6 a.m. on Dec. 20, officers responded to Evangel Temple on Towson Avenue in regards to a commercial burglary. 

After arriving, police discovered someone had entered the church and destroyed tens of thousands of dollars worth of property. After viewing video surveillance, police identified James Leon Garner, 39, as the suspect.

Associate pastor of Evangel Temple Church, Ryan Rose says they estimate the suspect did between $25,000 to $50,000 in damage to the lobby and stage in their sanctuary but he did not steal anything. 

“We are a church in this community, we’re in it everywhere we can be. We are trying to reach people at every demographic, and we have all types of folks that come in and out throughout the week. Everybody is welcome here and a break-in isn’t going to change that,” Rose said. 

Police say Garner was taken to the department for questioning and was arrested for commercial burglary. He's currently being held at the Sebastian County Detention Center on a $22,500 bond.

Unrelated to Garner's arrest, Hunter Green, 22, and his mother Melinda Green, 43, were arrested in connection to burglaries at multiple churches in Fort Smith on Dec. 23.

According to investigators, Hunter admitted to breaking into three churches in the areas of South 20th, Waldron and Grand Avenue. They say several electronic items and later recovered. Melinda also admitted to investigators that she was with her son on these occasions and participated in the crimes.

The mother and son duo were booked into the Sebastian County Detention Center on three counts of commercial burglary and drug-related charges. 

Hunter is being held on a $5,350 bond and Melinda is being held on a $6,000 bond. 

West-Ark Church of Christ preaching minister Chris Benjamin says laptops and fuel cards were missing and no locked doors in the building were ever opened. He says they are thankful to the police and their surveillance system that led to the quick arrest. 

“If our security footage has kept somebody else from getting more damage or having something really special to them stolen, then we are glad to know that worked out the way it did. I hope this is a moment for those who are arrested to reflect on what they did,” Benjamin said. 

FSPD says these arrests have cleared a number of property crime cases. Aric Mitchell with the department says this shows why security cameras like the ones used by the churches pay off.

“That fact that both of these cases have been brought to such a quick conclusion, we really couldn’t have done it without the precautions they took on their end to be able to secure their property and that security is for their property,” Mitchell said.  

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