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3 suspects still at large in Soulard church bell theft

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ST. LOUIS – Last week, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office filed at-large warrants for three men wanted for stealing a church bell from outside a Soulard church last Halloween.

Christian Matthew Hamra, 49, and Timothy Oberhaus, 45, were charged with stealing – $25,000 or more, while James Schuman, 54, was charged with attempted stealing – $25,000 or more.

Police and prosecutors claim the trio was part of a group that went to Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church the night before Halloween and knocked the bronze bell off its stand. In the overnight hours of Nov 1., 2023, the group returned and took the bell.

The thieves placed the bell on a cart, took it out of the front gate, and loaded it onto a trailer behind a truck. The theft was captured on the church’s security cameras.

The bell first rang at the original Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in 1849. The present church, dedicated in 1875, houses five bells, each the size of Big Ben in London. The stolen bell, a bronze artifact weighing between 500 and 800 pounds, had been displayed in the rectory’s front yard for several decades.

The estimated value of the bell was said to be nearly $30,000, with additional costs to repair the support stand.

Fortunately, the stolen bell was recovered on November 15.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Schuman, Hamra, or Oberhaus is asked to contact the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department at 314-231-1212.

Meanwhile, a fourth man involved in the theft, Melvin James Birchfield, 53, was charged on January 10 with receiving stolen property. A witness had confirmed Birchfield was in possession of the bell.

Police searched Birchfield’s residence and uncovered various stolen items, including a bronze plaque from Jefferson Barracks and 54 firearms. Birchfield allegedly confessed to stealing the plaque and the church bell. 

Birchfield posted bond on January 19, but is now in custody at St. Louis County Jail on unrelated charges.

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