By Michael Kimberley and Barbara Hollands
THIEVES are preying on mourners in the Eastern Cape by stealing handbags and purses from the bereaved during their most vulnerable moments.
Pretending to be guests, the criminals lurk around funerals or wakes until unsuspecting victims leave their handbags unattended.
Cars, cellphones and laptops are on the thieves’ list, with incidents reported across the province at funerals and also at regular Sunday church services.
Eight churches and one funeral home confirmed the spate of thefts to the Weekend Post this week.
At the First Avenue Funeral Home, Adele and Sarah Leite had their purses stolen during their grandmother’s funeral two weeks ago.
Adele lost R360, including her driver’s licence, bank cards, ID book and medical aid card.
Only R10 was stolen from Sarah as she had most of her cash in her pocket.
Adele said she was shocked because she never thought a thief would violate people during a funeral.
"The audacity of the thief makes me sick. We were targeted when our guard was really down.”
She said the thief even tried to comfort her grandfather over his wife’s death.
"It was a bit impersonal but you would never think she was only there to steal,” she said.
The funeral was attended by 20 family members, four people from an old age home and the suspected thief.
"She was the odd person out and no one knew who she was.”
Adele described the woman as short with black hair, heavy makeup and wearing glasses and stilettos.
A similar description was given following a theft at the St Andrew’s Uniting Presbyterian Church in Heugh Road, Walmer, last month.
The thief made off with R300 during the funeral. This time she tried to clean up after the service while mourners wandered around.
One of the people in attendance, who asked not to be named, said the woman did not fit in.
"She stood out with most people knowing each other. After she left we realised someone’s purse was stolen,” she said.
First Avenue Funeral Home’s Prue Gillespie said: "We have implemented security measures to prevent any future thefts.”
Lay pastor Kokkie Smit said he had never seen the woman before.
"You don’t want to put people off but we want people to be more alert,” he said.
A car was also stolen from the church on November 21.
Doug Parmenter, who is the driver for fellow congregant Diana Winfield, said the vehicle, which was later recovered, was stolen between 7pm and 8pm.
"It was taken from the church parking lot but found later in Walmer. The police suspect that the thieves became nervous that they would be identified and that is why they abandoned the car,” Parmenter said.
"It is so sad that people can steal from a church, which is supposed to be a sacred place.”
Other handbag and purse thefts in Nelson Mandela Bay were reported in Charlo, Uitenhage and Newton Park this year. This was confirmed by congregants from around the city.
Congregants told Weekend Post the latest theft occurred at the Westering Methodist Church in Port Elizabeth last Saturday, when four purses were stolen by a brazen thief during a funeral service.
The grief-stricken mourners moved across to the church’s hall for refreshments when the purses were snatched.
By the time people returned, the thief was long gone.
This was confirmed by Charmaine Morgan. She declined to comment further, only saying the matter would be discussed with the church leaders.
In East London, Trinity Methodist Church secretary Marilyn Bahlmann said cars had been stolen from the church’s city centre parking lot.
"One of the cars belonged to a pensioner and although he was insured there was not enough to buy another car,” she said.
Retired accountant Keith Durno, 81, said his 13-year-old car was stolen from the parking lot of the Trinity Methodist Church in October.
Durno volunteers his services to the church, but says he can no longer get around freely following the loss of his vehicle.
"I went to the church after the weekend one morning to do the banking and when I came out my car was gone. I only got R18800 from insurance so I can’t buy another car for that and it’s very inconvenient,” he said.
Bahlmann said a thief was also caught red-handed trying to steal a laptop at the church.
The Eastern Cape’s Universal Council of Churches said the thieves were provoking God and literally playing with fire.
The council’s chief ecumenical officer, the Reverend Mpumelelo Qwabaza, said he was mortified by criminals targeting church- goers in the province.
"I am shocked. There is a point when God acts harshly and these people are interrupting His work.”
Bay police spokesman Captain Stanley Jarvis confirmed that funerals were targeted by thieves.
"It does happen. Usually there are two or three thefts in a short period of time and then it stops.”
He said it was difficult to calculate the true extent of the crimes, because "when the crimes are reported it is classified as a normal theft”.
This is a version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, December 15, 2012.