BROOKFIELD – During the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Jan. 10, the congregation at St. Dominic Church heard the second reading from Acts 10 in which Peter tells those gathered that whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.

Given what worshipers witnessed moments earlier, Paul’s words to the Ephesians — “The thief must no longer steal, but rather labor, doing honest work with his own hands…” — may have been more apropos as parishioners, including an off-duty member of law enforcement, helped foil an attempted robbery that occurred immediately after the opening procession.

According to onlookers, the would-be thief, a 44-year-old white male from Menomonee Falls, slipped into one of the front pews and sat next to a woman whose purse he tried to put under his baggy overcoat when she wasn’t looking.

“When we were part way through the processional hymn our musician kind of missed a beat or two on his organ playing, which is very uncommon for him, and when I looked out, at the same time that was happening, I saw what looked like a scuffle on the side aisle, and one of the parishioners had yelled out, ‘You stole that woman’s purse!’” said Deacon Greg Diciaula, who was assisting at the Mass being celebrated by visiting priest Fr. Jerry Hudziak.

“The individual kept saying, ‘Let me go, let me go, get your hands off of me,’ and there were a couple people who were detaining him,” said Fr. Hudziak.

“They kind of wrestled the purse away from the man and they started to herd him down the aisle toward me, toward the back of church,” said Natalie Kieffer, who was standing several rows behind the melee. “The man was swearing, you know, kind of making a ruckus – but I can’t even tell you how lightning-fast this man was; he tried to grab another lady’s purse right across from me.”

It was then, said Capt. Jim Adlam of the City of Brookfield Police, that his colleague, off-duty Det. Eric Levenhagen, became involved. Levenhagen was attending Mass with his family and was sitting toward the back of the church.

“At that point he jumped over two pews and took off after the guy … he identified himself as a police officer, kept telling the guy to stop, he’s got to stop; the guy would not cooperate,” said Capt. Adlam.

Det. Levenhagen and a group of parishioners pursued the suspect out into the parking lot.

“Our detective went hands-on with him and grabbed him, and the guy claimed that he had a gun. At that time, there were a couple other parishioners there but they all just kind of backed off then. And (Det. Levenhagen) decided since the guy said he had a gun he’s going to just take him down to the ground,” Capt. Adlam said.

Det. Levenhagen detained him until squad cars arrived. Attending law enforcement personnel included another St. Dominic parishioner, Sgt. Mark Tushaus.

St. Dominic staff had already been on high alert since the evening before, said Deacon Diciaula, when a woman’s purse was stolen while she was out of her pew receiving Communion.

“No one saw the incident occur; the ushers and ministers of hospitality only said that they saw an individual who was sitting in the back row of church, came in during the Eucharistic prayer and then was gone by the time Communion was over,” he said.

Capt. Adlam said the suspect from the evening before was the same man who returned the next day, and still had the previous victim’s cell phone on his person.

The suspect is being charged with three counts of theft, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of stolen property. His name had not been released by the City of Brookfield District Attorney’s office as of this writing.

Kieffer, a parishioner of St. Anthony on the Lake, Pewaukee, who was visiting St. Dominic that day, expressed admiration for the quick response of the congregation and Det. Levenhagen.

“It was upsetting and you could tell people were upset … but it was handled very professionally,” she said.
Nevertheless, she described it as an eye-opening situation.

“Church is a safe place, I don’t think anybody felt unsafe or they would have cleared the church – but you don’t know, that person could have had a gun; you think of what could have happened and how much more serious it could have been. It really struck me as something that people should be aware of, even in God’s house,” she said.

Capt. Adlam said the robbery “would appear to be a drug-related issue” and praised the efforts of Det. Levenhagen and the parishioners at St. Dominic. He emphasized that, while such occurrences are not commonplace, it serves as a warning to citizens to be vigilant of their personal property and safety no matter where they are.

“As much as we want to think we’re all safe and everything is wonderful at church, you do have to keep an eye on your personal belongings. There are people out there that will target even a church,” he said.

Once the suspect had fled the church, Deacon Diciaula said he felt it was necessary to refocus everyone’s attention on the Mass.

“I think it taught everyone a really good lesson, because obviously, we’re in the Year of Mercy, and right away rather than putting up the prejudices and the stereotypes of who this could be and why, we need to be open as a community to understand, you know, this is an individual who needs God’s help, as we all do, and his forgiveness, and we prayed for him as a community at that point and we carried on,” he said.

At the end of Mass, a trustee from the parish and Sgt. Tushaus addressed the congregation and explained the suspect had been apprehended and there was no further cause for concern.

Fr. Hudziak was eager to end what had turned out to be a rather dramatic liturgy on a light note.

“I said to the people at the end, ‘You know, things are really well-organized here at St. Dominic – look at the time, in a little less than an hour we had a baptism, a Mass and a foiled robbery.’”