EAST ST. LOUIS — Police on Monday have two men in custody for questioning in the armed robbery at a church while services were under way.
Rufus Thomas, 19, of 1628 Henrietta Ave. in East St. Louis, was located by police about 5:30 p.m. Monday and Howard Dotson Jr., 17, of 2431 Gaty Ave. in East St. Louis, was taken into custody later in the evening.
East St. Louis Police Chief Michael Floore said a call reporting the church robbery came into the Police Department at 5:12 p.m. Sunday, stating three gunmen stopped worship at the IRA Grove Baptist Church, 1701 Belmont, to rob the congregation.
"Church service was going on when three masked gunmen went into the church and robbed the people who were there at gunpoint," Floore said.
No one was injured. It's not known how much money and valuables the gunmen got away with.
Candace Toller was one of the victims. She said the first gunman, wearing all black, entered the church with a second unidentified suspect following him. He said, "Session over. Give me everything you got," Toller said.
She said the minister, who she and others know only as "Brother Love," was talking to attendees when the gunmen arrived. A third man remained at the church door with his gun, said Darryl Williams, another attendee.
Williams was sitting near the front of the church. "He pointed his gun directly at the minister. That's how they got everybody's attention," he said.
Efforts to reach the minister for comment were unsuccessful.
Toller said she was terrified. She said her 78-year-old grandmother was made to get down on her knees. She said the family had her nephew, who had just turned 2 years old, with them.
"My grandmother shouldn't be forced down on her knees. She's sore right now," Toller said.
Williams said he was more afraid for the people in the church than for himself. There were between 50 and 75 people present. There were newborns up to the elderly, Williams said.
Williams said the gunmen demanded cell phones, wallets and jewelry. They didn't frisk anybody.
"They were in there for about 10 minutes. And they took whatever they could get in that time. I am sure it seemed a lot longer for the people because they were being robbed at gunpoint," Williams said.
"They did this in front of innocent young babies. I am thankful that no one was hurt," he said. "My whole family was in there."
Williams said he hopes police can locate and arrest the robbers.
"If they can rob people during a church service, then it is not safe for anyone to go to church in East St. Louis. And I don't want that to be the case because there are a lot of churches in East St. Louis," Williams said.
Toller said one of the bandits was wearing all black, including a skull cap and a bandana around his nose. Another one had on a hoodie and a black-and-white bandana. Toller said the third man, who remained behind the door, was dark-skinned.
Williams said they appeared to be about 17 years old and all were small in stature.
The Rev. Johnny Scott, who is the retiring director of the local NAACP chapter, said it is important for police to catch these suspects because otherwise there will be more church robberies once word gets out.
Floore said anyone with any information about this crime is urged to call the East St. Louis Police Department at 482-6700 or Crime Stoppers at 1-866-371 TIPS. (This is an anonymous tip line that pays up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.)