John A. Bish never met a house of worship he didn't want to loot, authorities say.
Bish is responsible for a several church burglaries in Buffalo, according to area police, and is suspected of similar thefts in Amherst, Hamburg, West Seneca and Jamestown over the past 18 months.
He often approaches church workers and volunteers or begs for cash or food, police said.
In return for the generosity, the churches or parishioners end up victims of thefts.
"When he is in the church, I think he is getting the lay of the land," said Buffalo South District Detective Mark J. Fitzpatrick. "We've charged him with two burglaries and have another case pending against him."
The 45-year-old Bish, who sometimes claims to live in Angola and at other times to have no permanent address, is now held in Chautauqua County Jail in lieu of $200,000 bail for allegedly stealing from parishioners during services at two Jamestown churches on March 4.
He is also a suspect in a West Seneca church burglary and, a few years back, was arrested for cases in Amherst and Hamburg that have apparently been resolved, city police say.
In one of his most brazen burglaries, Bish was accused of entering St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church on Abbott Road in South Buffalo and approaching a secretary for cash.
"She went to the pastor, and the pastor told the secretary to give him money. The worker unbeknownst to her was followed by Bish into her office, and he watched her take money from a cabinet.
"She gave him $50 and then that night there was a burglary at the church office and the same cabinet was broken into and the money box taken. We charged him, and the grand jury indicted him," Fitzpatrick said.
Though Bish's DNA was found on a bottle of altar wine he allegedly drank, the case was dropped late last year.
Three weeks ago, Bish talked his way into the rectory at Our Lady of Charity Catholic Parish at Abbott Road and Alamo Place.
"He asked for money, and he was told there was none kept there. He asked to use the restroom and after using the restroom, the secretary heard drawers in a kitchen area opening. She went to confront him and he emerged from the kitchen.
"She asked him to leave and after he left, she found keys to the parish were missing. The parish school was then entered and items were stolen from classrooms," the detective said.
Bish is the prime suspect in the classroom thefts, though he has not yet been charged.
A day later on March 11, Bish was found inside the Cazenovia Park Baptist Church on North Legion Drive, also in South Buffalo.
"A man who volunteers at the church heard someone in the building two hours after Sunday services and the building had already been secured. The volunteer found Bish hiding at the end of a darkened hallway and led him from the building," Fitzpatrick said.
The man then inspected the area where Bish was hiding and discovered that three locked offices had been broken into and church keys taken.
Two days later, the church volunteer noticed Bish on South Park Avenue.
"He actually spotted Bish checking the doorknobs at South Park United Methodist Church to see if they were unlocked," South District Chief Patrick M. Pascall said.
The volunteer parked his car and attempted to approach Bish, who started running, according to the chief.
"The guy called 911 and as he chased Bish he continued to relay directions to us," the chief said.
Sensing he was close to getting caught, Bish looked back at his pursuer and threatened to shoot him, police said.
"He then placed a hand inside his jacket, feigning he had a gun," Pascall added.
Bish was captured on the first block of Okell Street and charged with burglarizing Cazenovia Park Baptist Church. Police also charged him with menacing for threatening the volunteer, the chief said.
Bish has offered no explanation as to why he targets churches, Fitzpatrick said.
But Pascall said churches represent easy targets for thieves.
"They are open and inviting places. There's trust," Pascall said.
With his arrest, church officials say there is relief in the community.
"We are glad that he was taken into police custody. We have just been praying for him," said Erin Galligan, a secretary at Cazenovia Park Baptist Church. "We pray that he gets the help that he needs and somehow finds the Lord through all of this."