A man responsible for burglarizing and vandalizing the North Kenai Chapel in Nikiski on Christmas Eve is still on the loose. The suspect forced entry into the church at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 24, at which time he smashed an offertory box, discharged the contents of a fire extinguisher into an office, and then proceeded to leave an anti-Christian message under the door.
To top it all off, the man stole a pound of bacon from the church's kitchen and defaced a nativity scene outside by replacing the figurine of baby Jesus with the slab of raw meat.
While the North Kenai Chapel is not affiliated with Judaism, Pastor Wayne Coggins still believes the symbolism behind replacing the Jesus figurine with bacon was intended to send a malicious message.
"Folks of the Jewish persuasion don't eat pork," noted Coggins, 64. "It's like anathema to them. So if you want to insult a Jew, stick pork or ham in front of them. Jesus was Jewish, and the Christian religion has its roots in the Jewish Bible. That was the sinister part of it as far as I was concerned."
Coggins arrived at the church while it was still dark on Friday morning, and upon grasping the handle to the front door noticed that something felt odd. The door had been broken, but Coggins didn't realize this immediately and figured someone had just left it unlocked. He continued into the building.
"I took a few steps inside to turn on a light to check things out and met this guy eyeball to eyeball," Coggins said of encountering the burglar.
As this understandably surprised the pastor, he failed to turn on the light and could only make out a pair of beady eyes glaring at him through the darkness. Coggins demanded, "Who are you and what are you doing here?" but the intruder took off out the double doors and ran up the street toward Holt-Lamplight Road.
Recovering from shock, Coggins finally succeeded in turning on the light. He observed some sort of smoke emanating from an unknown source and ran to the kitchen but found no evidence of fire there. After returning to the foyer, he realized the substance was coming from under the secretary's office door and that the man had sprayed the entire room with the whitish powder from a fire extinguisher.
"He just totally emptied it all over everything in there," Coggins said, and reported that he doesn't yet know if the copiers and computers in the room are functional or if they will have to be replaced.
After confirming the absence of fire, Coggins called 911 and waited for a trooper to arrive. During this time he discovered a note left under the door to the office that read, "Jesus don't count you." Coggins couldn't make sense of the grammatically questionable message.
While the suspect had also smashed an offertory box and another small cashbox in the reception area, no money was stolen as both receptacles were empty.
When Alaska State Trooper Larry Duran arrived from the dispatch office in Soldotna about 30 minutes after Coggins made the call, he questioned the pastor and examined the church and nativity scene for clues that might point to the offender's identity.
"He was very thorough," Coggins said of Duran. "He did a great job. He didn't leave anything uncovered and spent several hours working with us."
Later that night when he returned home, it occurred to Coggins that the encounter earlier that day could have taken a far nastier turn than he had initially recognized: the intruder had not been armed, and the pastor registered a deep gratitude for this crucial omission.
"One of the more dangerous things to do is corner or surprise a burglar," Coggins said. "I realized it could have been a little bit of a different Christmas."
Coggins described the suspect as a white male, approximately 5 feet, 10 inches in height, with a black mustache. The suspect was reported to be carrying a black duffle bag, wearing a dark, bulky winter coat that came just below the waistline, and a fitted stocking cap with red earflaps.
"Troopers are following all leads and would still appreciate help from the public," said Tim Despain, the public information office supervisor for the Alaska State Troopers.
Anyone with information regarding the identity and whereabouts of the suspect is encouraged to call the Alaska State Troopers at 907-262-4453 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-478-4258.
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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