- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

Several congregants at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, Md., thought the gunman with a ski mask who interrupted their New Year’s Day service was part of their pastor’s lesson.

But the man wasn’t there to impart any spiritual instruction. He was there to rob them.

“We were about to watch a video clip [and] we heard a voice saying, ‘This is a robbery’ from the back of the church,” said Gary Davis, who was among about 50 worshippers at the Sunday evening service.

“Basically, we all thought it was a skit. Everybody was turning around smiling at the guy.”

The smiles faded quickly as the gunman cursed and ordered some children to collect wallets and purses.

“Once I realized it was real, there [was] still an element of disbelief,” said Mr. Davis, 55, who has attended Mount Zion for about 16 years. “You’re in church, and you never expect that to happen during church.”

Bob Thomas, a spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, said the armed robbery was the county’s first during a worship service in at least 10 years. Investigators could not recall the last such incident.

The robber burst in at about 6:37 p.m. as the congregation was ending the praise-and-worship portion of the service, Mr. Thomas said. The gunman ordered three boys — ages 11, 8 and 6 — and one woman to gather wallets and purses.

The Rev. Craig McLaughlin, Mount Zion’s pastor for 19 years, said the gunman appeared agitated and nervous.

“I was just sitting there while it was going on praying that everybody would stay still and not do anything that would get anybody hurt,” said Mr. McLaughlin, 48, who was in a front pew.

The gunman ordered the congregants to move to the front of the church and told the children to put the valuables they had collected from about eight people on the floor. He picked up the items and fled through the church’s main entrance.

“Some people called the police right away on their cell phones,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “The rest of us prayed that the Lord would see to it this man was stopped or caught before he hurt somebody and that the Lord would change his heart.”

The gunman did not fire his weapon, and no one was injured during the 10-minute ordeal.

“Everybody was real cooperative and still wondering if it was real or not,” Mr. Davis said. “Strangely, I didn’t have any kind of fear or anything, I think because of the disbelief.”

Police had not recovered any of the stolen goods and had made no arrests as of yesterday. Investigators did not know whether the robber had help in making his getaway.

The gunman was described as white, about 5 feet 10 inches tall and wearing dark clothing.

Bel Air is about 30 miles northeast of Baltimore.

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