Lakewood executive offers theory of how cash ended up in church wall as plumber gets $20K reward

Justin the plumber (C) is flanked by Crime Stoppers of Houston CEO Rania Mankarious (L) and Nichole Christoph, deputy director of Crime Stoppers of Houston (R). | Crime Stoppers of Houston

The plumber who recently discovered an undisclosed sum of cash and checks stacked inside a wall at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, seven years after some $600,000 was reported stolen from a safe, received a $20,000 reward from Crime Stoppers of Houston. Meanwhile, a church executive offered a possible theory of how the money ended up in the wall.

In a statement Tuesday, Crime Stoppers of Houston announced that the plumber, who has only identified himself publicly by the name Justin for reasons of privacy, would get $20,000 for discovering and turning over the money to church officials.

“Crime Stoppers of Houston is a public safety organization that thrives on the public safety of all communities. We believe that it takes all of us, working together, to keep Houston safe and thriving,” Crime Stoppers CEO Rania Mankarious said.

“In 2014, Lakewood Church gave us $20,000 to work on this case. In 2016, they chose to gift us those funds for operations. Today, we are gifting that same [amount] of money to this Good Samaritan and wishing he and his family a wonderful holiday season.”

On Wednesday, Nichole Christoph, deputy director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, told The Christian Post that they met with Justin on Tuesday for about one hour. Christoph said that Justin “seems like a really good guy.”

“He knew it was the right thing to do, and that’s what he did,” she said.

She also noted that Justin explained how much the $20,000 gift means to his family.

“He’s got a young son, and they’ve been on some hard times, and they were expecting Christmas would be difficult. But, he’s very excited about having extra money to finish projects around his house and makes sure that his baby gets a good Christmas and then also helping others,” she said. “He’s just a very humble person.”

In an interview with CP Wednesday, Justin, 28, described himself as a Christian who isn’t currently committed to a congregation but tries to live out the values of his faith. The plumber, who lives with his fiancé and toddler in a recently-purchased mobile home, confirmed that life had been a struggle as of late, and the $20,000 gift is an answered prayer.

“We went through some hard times over the past year. Work has been up and down here lately. … I’ve had a few setbacks with the property, with the mobile home that I purchased. It needs some updated repairs,” he said.

Justin, who says he’s not “a greedy person,” said a few days after finding the money, he prayed to God to send him some help.

“A few days after the fact, I was driving into work early in the morning. I saw some shooting stars, and I’m like, ‘You know what, let me pull over real quick and give a little prayer,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve done a good thing, Lord, and I hope that somebody can see through all  this negativity that’s being spread around and maybe something good comes of it. And yesterday, that answer was sent full.”

Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen. | Facebook/Joel Osteen Ministries

In March 2014, The Houston Chronicle reported $200,000 in cash and $400,000 in checks were stolen from a safe at Lakewood Church. Officials there had been working with the Houston Police Department to solve the case. Police confirmed last week that evidence from the checks recovered from the wall inside Lakewood Church suggests the funds are connected to the March 2014 theft.

Justin first revealed that he found the money while working at the church on Nov. 10 during the radio morning show at 100.3 The Bull hosted by George Lindsey.

“It was just unbelievable, the things he was telling us that they found in the walls,” Lindsey told Click 2 Houston.

The plumber said he was shocked when about 500 envelopes fell out of a wall as he tried to remove a loose toilet.

“There was a loose toilet in the wall, and we removed the tile,” he said. “We went to go remove the toilet, and I moved some insulation away, and about 500 envelopes fell out of the wall, and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’”

He said he reached out to the church’s maintenance supervisor and turned in the money.

A long line of cars wait to get into the Lakewood church, which was designated as a shelter for Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston, Texas, on August 29, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

When asked what kinds of reactions he has gotten since finding the money, Justin told CP that it has been mostly positive.

“Everyone pretty much knows what I did was a good thing. They know of me, so I’ve been overwhelmed with the congratulations,” he said.

He assured he was never tempted to take the money he found in the bathroom because, “like I said, I’m on holy ground.”

Even though he’s seen people online saying that they would have taken some of the money, Justin said, “I don’t do that.”

“I was raised to mind your peers and don’t do nothing,” he said. “You’ll get tenfold back in return for doing a good deed.”

In a recent interview with KPRC Click2Houston, Justin said he was monitoring Osteen’s Sunday sermon to see if he would mention anything about how he handled finding the money. He said he was “just a little upset” that Osteen had said nothing.

“I wanted to hear [Joel Osteen] say, ‘You know, Justin, what you did was right. We understand what you did and what you could have done,’” the plumber said. “I feel like, at this point, I should have heard something. I’m just a little upset.”

In a statement to CP Wednesday, Lakewood Church noted that it is “appreciative” of the plumber.

“In 2016, Lakewood Church made a $20,000 charitable donation to Crime Stoppers of Houston to help solve this case and support them for all they do for the community. We are appreciative of the plumber and we hope he pays the gift forward.”

In a follow-up interview with CP, Don Iloff, a senior executive at Lakewood Church, said the plumber has been thanked by church officials many times since he discovered the money and noted that Osteen would be more than happy to meet and greet him at a Sunday service.

“He’s been invited to the church and [to] attend the service if he’d like, and I know Joel would be happy to meet with him, say hello to him and thank him,” Iloff, Osteen’s brother-in-law, said.

“He has been thanked by probably three or four people at the church. The day that it happened, he was there for quite a while because the police spoke to him as well. He was thanked over and over again by different people. … Numerous associate pastors and administrators there at the church thanked him,” Iloff said.

The plumber told CP that he never heard directly from anyone at Lakewood Church until Wednesday when he received a message from Iloff during his interview with CP.

“I’m a Christian myself, and I would like to talk to him [Osteen]. Personally, I would like to shake his hand,” he said.

“Thanks to him, my family, we can have a good Christmas. And I want to thank him. I feel like I should at least speak to him,” Justin said.

As for how the cash and checks ended up in the bathroom wall, Iloff told CP that while the police are still investigating, there are different theories about how it could have happened.

“The bathroom is a public bathroom, but it’s a single-use bathroom and you can push the ceiling out of the bathroom,” he said.  

“If you threw the bags [of money] up into the ceiling to maybe get them later or whatever and they fell down into the wall, you wouldn’t be able to get to the bags,” he said as a possible explanation for how the money may have gotten into the wall.

Iloff said the discovery by the plumber, who was doing his job, was “inexplicable in a way.”

“Every one of us was shocked when we found out seven years later,” he said.

Iloff said at the time the money went missing that there were no security cameras in the hallways near the bathroom.

When asked if he believes anyone might be arrested for theft, Iloff said: “I have no idea.”

“I pray for whoever did it,” he added.

He further stated that one of the first things the church did after learning about the money was to notify their insurance company and begin working with them to settle the case.

“I would imagine it’s settled now. I’m not sure, but we are working with the insurance company,” Iloff said.

He also confirmed that Lakewood is now in possession of all the money found in the wall but was asked by the police not to disclose the sum that was found.

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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