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Church vandalism mystery deepens

Photo: Paul Pickel holds up one of the damaged panels from Christ by the Sea Church.

It was a strange and shocking event for the island when valuable stained glass windows at Christ by the Sea Methodist Church were smashed in three separate incidents during Holy Week by an unknown person or persons.

Now, the mystery surrounding the vandalism has deepened, with conflicting accounts about whether someone has been apprehended for the crimes.

During a phone interview last week with Vero Beach 32963, Rev. Cliff Melvin, pastor of the 335-member congregation, said the perpetrator “has been caught and is incarcerated.” He said he shared that information with his congregation the prior Sunday, telling them, “We will be in prayer for the young man – a minor – and for his family. It is a sad experience for all of you.”

But on Monday, Vero Beach Police contradicted Melvin’s account. When asked about the pastor’s statement, and specifically whether there has been an arrest, Lt. John Pedersen, head of Vero’s detective division, said in no uncertain terms, “That is not true. When there is an arrest, we will let you know.”

Another puzzling twist: According to police sources, at one point during the week following the vandalism, the active police investigation was halted while investigators were “waiting to hear from the church.”  No other explanation was given for this hiatus, and the investigation apparently resumed shortly thereafter.

The first incident of vandalism occurred sometime between April 7 and April 9; more of the brilliant-colored windows were smashed on April 10; and a third act of vandalism took place on either the 11th or 12th. 

Each of the crimes was reported upon discovery, and, according to Pedersen, officers responded immediately, with stepped-up patrols of the neighborhood and an unmarked vehicle that unsuccessfully staked out the scene for some period in between the acts of vandalism.

A church source said Christ by the Sea did not have exterior security cameras prior to the vandalism, but has since installed them.

First public word of the vandalism came on Holy Wednesday, April 12, when Melvin posted on the church’s Facebook page: “Feeling sad at Christ by the Sea. Holy Week just got a little more difficult. Third act of vandalism in four days. This time six rocks through the beautiful, large stained glass windows in the front of the sanctuary.”

With the broken windows shuttered, the congregation celebrated Easter Sunday in relative gloom, without the sunlight that normally streams through the hand-blown, jewel-colored glass. An individual who was present at the service said shock and sadness prevailed as word spread about what had happened.

The windows were designed and created in the 1990s by world-renowned stained-glass artist, sculptor and painter, the late Conrad Pickel, in his Vero Beach Studio. Pickel’s son, Paul, who helped make the windows, now carries on his father’s work.

Pickel was contacted by the church after the vandalism.  Windows in the nave, one on one side of the sanctuary, and the 8-by-10-foot sections in the church’s boat-bow-like front facing A1A sustained damage, he said.

Pickel removed the damaged windows and transported them to his studio where the long, costly process of restoration will begin as soon as the church’s insurance company signs off.

“It is heartbreaking,” he said, going on to explain that the shattered glass was hand-blown in Germany and France. Each piece must be cut, colored, fired. Then the sections are painstakingly leaded and assembled, and finally installed. Pickel said fabricating all the church’s windows back in the 1990s probably took at least six months.

If the windows were made today, Pickel estimates they would cost in excess of $150,000. He said repairing the damaged windows will likely run between $10,000 and $12,000.

When told on Monday afternoon about Pedersen’s statement that no arrest has been made in the vandalism case, Melvin seemed taken aback and said he did not know what to say in response. He said he would be meeting with Pedersen on Tuesday and did not want to say anything else until after that meeting.

Because of the dollar amount of damage, the acts of vandalism at the church could be prosecuted as felonies. Regardless of whether charges are ultimately brought by the complaining witness – the church – the prosecutor could still choose to proceed with prosecution. 

Anyone with information is urged to call the Vero Beach Police Department.