$600K theft from Lakewood Church went cold for 7 years. Now, a radio caller reveals he found it in bathroom wall

2022-05-10 07:24:10 By : Mr. James Wang

This is a carousel. Use Next and Previous buttons to navigate

The exterior of Lakewood Church in Houston.

Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen takes to the stage for his sermon on Sunday, April 22, 2018, in Houston. Images for a four-part series on it's pastor, Joel Osteen. ( Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle )

Lakewood church pastor Joel Osteen delivers a sermon at the Houston mega church on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Images for a four-part series on its pastor, Joel Osteen. ( Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle )

Minister Joel Osteen talks to attendees at "A Night of Hope" with his wife, Vicoria on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Los Angeles.

The man on a Houston radio call-in show told a story of finding money in the wall of a building where he was doing plumbing repairs. He’d found hundreds of envelopes, he said, some stuffed with cash. A lot of cash.

The building, it turns out, was Lakewood Church, the Houston-based megachurch led by Joel Osteen. The plumber said he discovered about 500 envelopes stashed behind bathroom tile and insulation last month. He suspected the money was tied to an unsolved heist at the church from years ago.

“I think it was about four weeks ago I was doing some plumbing work at the Lakewood Church and I discovered money in the wall that was stolen back in 2014,” the caller, identified only as Justin, said Thursday morning on 100.3 The  Bull, a Houston country music station.

“Whoa, wait, what do you mean? How much money?” asked George Lindsey, one of the on-air personalities.

Justin responded referencing the $600,000 worth of checks and cash that thieves reportedly stole from a safe at the church more than seven years ago. Authorities had never disclosed how the safe was opened.

Houston police on Friday evening confirmed that the plumber’s discovery of checks and cash appears to be connected to the unsolved crime.

“Evidence from the recovered checks suggests this November case connected to a March 9, 2014 theft report of undisclosed amounts of money at the church,” the police department said.

Authorities said the money was found during a renovation project and was inventoried, documented and left in the custody of Lakewood Church because it was property found on the premises.

Lakewood representatives acknowledged the discovery in a statement. 

“Recently, while repair work was being done at Lakewood Church, an undisclosed amount of cash and checks were found,” the megachurch said. “Lakewood immediately notified the Houston Police Department and is assisting them with their investigation. Lakewood has no further comment at this time.” 

Response on investigation at 3700 Southwest Freeway:#hounews pic.twitter.com/9rssUllblJ

As for Justin, whose last name has not been released by the radio station or the church, it’s unclear why he came forward with the news, more than a month later. Another on-air personality, Erik Scott Smith, said he believes the plumber feels slighted.

“I think he feels disconnected from the situation,” he said. “He made a huge discovery; no matter what the money is related to, (and) no one is saying thank you, no one is connecting with him in any way. I think he feels out of the loop with this major thing that happened in his life. It’s hard to imagine the craziest day you’ve had at work and everybody pretends like it doesn’t exist.”

Lakewood is the largest megachurch in the United States, with about 43,500 people attending services there weekly, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Osteen’s televised sermons reach about 100 countries, the  Associated Press reported.

SMILING PASTOR: How Joel Osteen made himself the smiling embodiment of a guilt-free Gospel

Osteen, the megachurch pastor and author, quickly trended on Twitter on Friday morning amid speculation about how the money ended up at his church.

The pastor did not specifically address the speculation, but tweeted on Thursday evening: “If you believe the negative things people say about you, if you let circumstances name you, then you’re giving it the right to come to pass.”

In 2014, church spokeswoman Andrea Davis said the church was staffed around the clock by security guards, one of whom — an off-duty Harris County sheriff’s deputy — was present when the theft was discovered. Police said at the time they were scrutinizing security footage. But no arrests were ever made.

It was unclear where the case left off until now. 

If you believe the negative things people say about you, if you let circumstances name you, then you’re giving it the right to come to pass.

William Venable II, a financial secretary and treasurer with Plumbers Local Union 68 serving Houston, said it’s not unusual to find things behind walls containing electrical wire, HVAC and pipes.

“Realistically sometimes it depends on the insulation, but a lot of times in a commercial restroom, we call it a chase wall — sometimes they can be 6 inches, it can be 18 inches of not really walking space, but the carriers are pretty wide. You can have electricity, HVAC for whatever else you need back there maybe.”

In his decades of experience, which includes plumbing work on both Houston airports and large area hospitals, he said he’s heard of plumbers finding a variety of things behind chase walls. They typically come across Coke or Dr. Pepper cans — never money.

“The guys that do the remodel would see more of that,” he said. “We would find old cigarette packs, old magazines, old beer bottles.”

Smith said Justin’s call came within the 7 a.m. hour of their morning show, which airs Monday through Friday. The crew discusses “phoner topics” where they ask the audience generic questions that often generate funny, interesting answers. 

During the segment, he and co-hosts Lindsey and Monica "Mo" Lunsford were discussing the story of a Dallas man who was proposing to his girlfriend at the AT&T stadium and dropped the ring in the adjacent fountain, and asked listeners to share things they recently found of value.

“Some people found $100, another person found a lost child at Disney World,” he said. 

Then came Justin’s story. 

“We were absolutely floored,” Smith said.

The Audacy, Inc.-owned FM radio station has studios and offices in Greenway Plaza, less than a half-mile from Lakewood Church. The 16,800-seat church was previously known as The Summit, the home of the NBA’s Rockets from 1975 to 2003.

“We overlook Lakewood, so to know that that happened right down the street and to know that it all came together in the weirdest way,” Smith said. “We didn’t know what to think. It felt like we were dreaming.”

The station provided the Chronicle with the audio of the call.

Upon making the discovery, the plumber said on the air, he contacted the maintenance supervisor on site and turned in the cash and checks.

“I’m an honest man,” Justin said.

The church had reported that the money and checks taken, as well as some envelopes with written credit card information, were limited to funds given during Saturday and Sunday services days before, the AP reported. The church had said the stolen funds were fully insured. Shortly after the burglary, a $25,000 reward was offered for information on solving the theft, according to the AP.

Justin said he hadn’t called Crime Stoppers yet and was “waiting until it all calms down" regarding a purported $25,000 reward for any clues to help solve the case.

Crime Stoppers Houston did not return requests for comment confirming the reward, limitations of the reward and whether Justin had received it. 

Asked if church leaders rewarded Justin for finding the money or if he had contacted it or Osteen directly, Lakewood spokesperson Jami Schlicher told the Chronicle that they cannot say anything more because “it’s a pending investigation.”

Joel Umanzor and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Monique Welch is a digital reporter for the Houston Chronicle. 

Monique reports on the trendiest news within the greater Houston region and across Texas, and occasionally contributes to the Chronicle's race and identity newsletter, HouWeAre. A native Baltimorean and previous Tampa resident, Monique joined the Chronicle in the summer of 2021 after nearly four years at the Tampa Bay Times where she worked on all things digital, launched the newspaper's first race and identity newsletter, Regarding Race, and covered local news. Monique holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications Media Studies from Goucher College. 

Nationwide, there are about 36 million women of reproductive age who are considered in danger of losing access to abortion in their home states. One in five, or about 7 million of them, live in Texas.

By Taylor Goldenstein and Jeremy Blackman