Romanian Organized Crime Syndicate Targets Religious Institutions in Maryland and Virginia

Romanian Organized Crime Syndicate Targets Religious Institutions in Maryland and Virginia

In a series of bold and unsettling incidents, a Romanian organized crime group has been targeting places of worship across Maryland and Virginia, engaging in daring daylight robberies. The Montgomery County Police have linked these crimes to a more extensive transnational network, prompting concerns and heightened security measures among local religious communities.

From March to May, five burglaries were reported at various houses of worship and associated residences in Montgomery County. The affected locations included the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Noor Center, the US Zen Institute, the Wat Thai Washington, D.C., and a fifth, unnamed home. These incidents were marked by their audacity, with criminals striking in broad daylight and during significant religious gatherings. The sheer audacity of these thefts has left many community members feeling violated and anxious about the safety of their places of worship.

On a recent Tuesday, police arrested Alex Dumitru, 23, and Natalia Dumitru, 18, in connection with two burglaries. Both were apprehended at a residence in Catonsville and charged with first-degree burglary-related offenses. They have since been released on $10,000 bail each, a fact that has stirred additional concern among the affected communities, who fear that the suspects might continue their criminal activities while awaiting trial.

Ahmadiyya Muslim Community: Alex Dumitru was connected to a burglary here on March 13 in Silver Spring. This community center is known for its outreach programs and interfaith dialogues, making it a particularly painful target for such a violation.

US Zen Institute: On May 9, Natalian Dumitru was charged with breaking into this Buddhist temple in Germantown. This intrusive act shattered the tranquility of the temple, which is a sanctuary for meditation and peace.

Detectives believe these crimes are part of a larger pattern linked to the Romanian Transnational Organized Crime group. However, details on how this connection was made remain undisclosed, leaving room for speculation and concern among the public. The group’s international nature and widespread activities make it a particularly challenging target for local law enforcement.

Montgomery County Police Lieutenant Andrew Suh revealed that the group, self-identified as the ROMAs, has been active in the D.C. area for about a decade. This group’s operations have been a constant challenge, likened to “cutting the heads of a hydra,” where dismantling one cell often leads to the emergence of another. Suh described the group’s modus operandi as highly adaptable and resilient, capable of regenerating and continuing its operations despite numerous arrests and disruptions.

One notable robbery occurred at the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple in Silver Spring. Surveillance footage showed thieves entering during a funeral luncheon, conspicuously failing to remove their shoes—indicating they were outsiders. They managed to steal $20,000 in donations from the resident monk’s safe in under 20 minutes. The monk, Ruangrit Thaithae, Monk Jack, planned to deposit the money the next day. The footage, which has been widely circulated, shows the thieves moving with practiced ease, a testament to their experience and confidence.

Reflecting on the incident, Monk Jack believed in karmic justice: “Even if law enforcement can’t catch them, karma will. They still have time to change and do good for their lives, families, and others.” His words echo a sentiment of hope and forgiveness despite the violation he and his community have suffered.

These robberies have left religious communities on edge. Kate Chance, a Montgomery County faith leader, highlighted the vulnerability of these institutions: “Houses of worship often use their funds to help the community. They’re seen as easy targets because they’re kind-hearted and often don’t report such incidents.” Chance emphasized that these places serve spiritual needs and crucial social services, including food drives, child support programs, and aid for the elderly.

In response to these incidents, Chance advised religious hubs to apply for area grants offering up to $20,000 for security upgrades to prevent future incidents. She noted that many places of worship lack basic security measures such as surveillance cameras and secure storage for valuables, making them attractive targets for criminals.

Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director, noted the unusual nature of organized criminals targeting places of worship. “These are hit-and-run artists. They know where to find value and prey on peaceful, unsuspecting communities,” he said. Despite the group’s notoriety, he emphasized that property crimes typically draw less federal attention compared to violent crimes. Swecker described the group’s strategy as low-risk, high-reward, capitalizing on their targets’ peaceful and trusting nature.

The Romanian Mafia, known for various criminal enterprises across the U.S., continues to pose significant challenges. California authorities reported the group’s involvement in credit card skimming operations at big-box stores earlier this year. This method involves using skimmers at self-checkouts to steal credit card information, showcasing the group’s versatility and technological savvy.

Swecker lamented the decline in federal actions against such organized crime, suggesting a need for renewed efforts to combat these transient groups effectively. “Taking down organized crime used to be a staple of the FBI. A transient group moving from jurisdiction to jurisdiction would be a perfect thing for the FBI to pursue,” he said, expressing frustration with what he perceives as a lack of aggressive federal intervention in recent years.

As law enforcement agencies work to dismantle these criminal networks, communities are urged to remain vigilant and report suspicious activities. The collective effort of law enforcement and community members is crucial in addressing and mitigating the impact of such organized criminal activities. Increased awareness and proactive measures can help safeguard these vital community institutions.

The recent spate of burglaries targeting religious institutions in Maryland and Virginia underscores a troubling trend of organized crime exploiting the sanctity and trust of places of worship. While local law enforcement has made strides in apprehending suspects, dismantling a transnational crime network remains the broader challenge. Community leaders and law enforcement must continue collaborating, ensuring that places of worship remain safe havens for peace and support in their communities.