By Bruce Burdett
One man is under arrest on charges that he stole from and defiled St. John the Baptist Church, his brother will be arrested next, and as many as six more people could face charges in connection with the early March break-in and robbery.
But “sadly,” valuable church artifacts were smashed beyond recognition, some of their parts melted down for their metal value at Mid-City Scrap in Westport, said Westport detective Sergeant Antonio Cestodio. Only a Roman missal prayer book was recovered relatively intact.
Upsetting as details have proven to be, “It will be good to finally have closure, said the Rev. Leonard Hindsley, who added that he appreciates the hard work of investigators.
Arrested Saturday was Martin Cutler, 29, of Taunton. He faces a slew of charges, among them breaking and entering in the nighttime for a felony, malicious damage, larceny over $250 and intimidation of a witness. He was also charged with a hate crime, Massachusetts Civil Rights Violation — desecration of a place of worship causing over $5,000 damage.
“And disturbingly,” Det. Cestodio said, Mr. Cutler was charged with use of a poison with the intent to injure when he urinated infected bodily fluid into a receptacle that held sacred holy water.” The infection is reported to be hepatitis C.
Police believe the events that shocked this congregation of around 1,000 Westport families began with a day at the beach.
Det. Cestodio said they understand that Mr. Cutler, his brother Jesse Cutler, 27, of New Bedford (both of whom have police records), and two others had gone to Horseneck Beach on Friday, March 1.
“They were on their way back from the beach when they took a turn and drove into (Westport Village).”
Investigators think the church was not specifically targeted “but they were driving by and saw it as an opportunity.”
The two brothers went inside the unlocked church, stole artifacts and vandalized other items.
“We believe the initial motive was robbery” but that while inside, Martin Cutler committed the other acts, Det. Cestodio said.
The crime shocked members of the church who, with their priest, participated that weekend in a rite of re-consecration. Father
Hindsley led church members around the outside, sprinkling holy water on the grounds to cleanse a place that had been profaned. It was the first time he or any of the others had participated in such a ceremony.
Det. Cestodio said Westport detectives immediately launched an intensive investigation into a crime that had hit their community hard. “They have been working all out on this for two weeks,” he said Monday.
Along the way, information they gathered led them to the Cutler brothers (among others) as persons of interest.
But the break they had hoped for came Friday evening, March 15, when Mattapoisett Police got a tip that stolen artifacts from the church were concealed inside a vehicle in their town.
Working together, Mattapoisett and Westport police later stopped that car in Rochester.
Officers searched the vehicle and discovered plastic bags with the tabernacle which had been broken into pieces along with broken chalices and other religious items, Det. Cestodio said. Mattapoisett Police arrested the driver on a charge of receiving stolen property (that person’s identity has not yet been released). Martin’s brother Jesse Cutler, had been arrested earlier in the day by Mattapoisett Police on unrelated larceny charges.
Friday evening, “Numerous people associated with the theft and concealment of the stolen property were interviewed by investigators,” Det. Cestodio said. As a result of those interviews, the prayer book and other stolen items were recovered from an apartment in Bourne.
Meanwhile, New Bedford Police and another Westport investigator went to Martin Cutler’s mother’s house on Longwood Avenue in New Bedford where additional stolen and broken church items were concealed.
On Saturday, Westport Detectives obtained a search warrant for Martin Cutler’s Taunton studio apartment. During that search Taunton and Westport officers found Martin Cutler hiding between the bed and wall. After a brief struggle with officers, he was arrested.
Det. Cestodio said that earlier Saturday, Mr. Cutler had threatened one of the witnesses who had cooperated with the Westport investigation.
“Westport detectives learned that at least eight people participated in either the theft and/or concealment of the crime by hiding the stolen items,” Det. Cestodio said. “Most of those people had been interviewed by Westport Police during the investigation in the past two weeks but had lied to police.” He added that none of those involved had any ties to Westport that police are aware of.
Arrests bring ‘closure’
Father Hindsley said he learned of the arrest Saturday from Westport Police.
“I’m glad that they have made an arrest,” he said. “I had thought that it might end up as one of those mysteries.”
But he said the destruction of the stolen items is a disappointment to him and church members. Those items included the antique tabernacle, old candlesticks and a chalice — “everything you use to conduct Mass.”
The heavy engraved brass tabernacle, and with it the communion host it contained, was the biggest loss.
“The tabernacle dates back to the 1911 church and we just had it refurbished,” he said. “It is very sad but these are things and things can be replaced. The loss of the host, the sacrament — “I don’t know what happened to it,” is especially upsetting.
Father Hindsley said church members are struggling with the teaching of forgiveness.
“People are still very upset and forgiveness will take time. It will happen but it can be hard.”
“The parishioners have been praying for closure of these horrible events and for a spirit of Christian forgiveness for the profanation of the church and the eucharist.”
Det. Cestodio praised the work of Westport investigators and those from other departments. “There was tremendous cooperation, a lot of hard work” in a case whose leads stretched from Westport nearly to the Cape.
Given the pain inflicted on so many people, he said it is especially satisfying to see the case solved, although all feel badly about the church’s losses. “We do hope it helps give people some closure in what has been a very difficult time.”