70-year-old accused of stealing from church, preschool

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- A 70-year-old California woman seemed above suspicion, but police say she was a prolific thief.

Ethel Jean Hays is facing charges for stealing from a church, a preschool, and more.

Palo Alto Police say the elderly woman not only stole money from a church, but it's believed she stole dozens of keys from varying businesses. Police say she the keys used to discreetly get into the buildings she stole from.

Police say in many cases she was an unassuming visitor, someone who found an opportunity to find keys to the building. She would then later come back to places when no one was there to allegedly steal whatever she could find.

"It's like our church is last sacred place," said Anne Taddey, a member of the church

Police say that didn't Hays from stealing from Trinity Lutheran Church, not once but twice.

"Some members noticed discrepancy in counting of offerings, Noah Rogness, a vicar at the Trinity Lutheran Church, said.

The church set up surveillance cameras that apparently caught Hays in the act. Palo Alto police say she set off the alarm during the latest burglary. About an hour later, she was arrested in downtown Palo Alto.

During a search, Hays was also found to have stolen documents from a Los Altos preschool. The school had no idea what had happened until police called them

"It's fair to say she's been busy," said Palo Alto police officer Brian Philip.

A search of Hays' home revealed much more evidence, according to police.

"That led to discoveries of bags, literally plastic bags full of keys," Philip said.

Police think she had about 80 keys that allowed her to get into various businesses without anyone knowing.

"A lot of the agencies she's going to are social services agencies," he added.

Two days after Hays posted bail, police say she was at it again. She was found trying to pawn two guitars in San Francisco. Police posted the pictures on its Facebook in hopes of finding the owner.

"It's definitely an unusual case," Philip said.

It's still unclear how Hays obtained all those keys.
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