Jeremy Nathan Brantley showed up at places of worship asking for a helping hand, then returned when no one was around to burglarize them.
Brantley, 26, pleaded guilty Friday in connection with a string of May burglaries at three Hall County churches and Maranatha Christian Academy. He received a five-year prison sentence from Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin after pleading guilty in a negotiated plea agreement to three counts of burglary and two counts of theft.
Brantley’s May 11 theft of a safe containing $12,000 in cash and checks from a Maranatha fundraiser received widespread attention and spurred a wave of donations to the struggling school.
"It’s heartbreaking when someone would victimize the very people who would reach out to help him," the Rev. Rod Bell Jr., president of Maranatha Christian Academy, said outside of court after the brief hearing. "It just goes to show you the depravity of man and how far we’ll go if we’re only out for ourselves."
Brantley also admitted to burglarizing the Refuge Worship Center on May 7, Gainesville First United Methodist Church on Thompson Bridge Road on May 20 and Lanier Christian Church on May 25. A safe was stolen from Lanier Christian containing collection offerings.
Brantley also was seen prowling outside Lakewood Baptist Church and Corinth Baptist Church.
Brantley appeared in court Friday in an orange jail jumpsuit with tattoos visible on his head, neck and face. He did not address the court except to plead guilty and answer the judge’s standard questions about his understanding of his rights.
His attorney said Brantley accepted responsibility and immediately expressed a desire to admit guilt following his June 9 arrest.
"These are deplorable acts, involving churches that were trying to help him, and he knows that," public defender Andy Maddux said.
Maddux said his client had struggled with mental health issues and "he tells me he has had a serious cocaine problem."
Assistant District Attorney Vanessa Sykes said Brantley would enter churches during the day and ask people there for help in the form of donations of food or money. Typically a church employee would provide him with an application form or tell him where he could get help, she said. Brantley would use the time inside the church to case it for a burglary later, the prosecutor said.
Brantley was arrested on a traffic charge after being pulled over near Lakewood Baptist Church, where a report of a suspicious person was called in to police. At the same time, his girlfriend was under investigation by Forsyth County Sheriff’s officials and told detectives about the safes he had stolen and discarded in woods, Sykes said.
The Marantha safe was recovered in woods just inside the Forsyth County line with about $7,000 in checks remaining but an undetermined amount of cash missing.
Brantley was ordered Friday to pay restitution of $3,150 to his victims. His full sentence was 15 years, with five to serve in prison and the remainder on probation.
Maranatha Christian Academy saw an outpouring of support following the burglary. One donor who requested anonymity wrote the school a check for $10,000.
"The Lord used it to help our school in a powerful way," Bell said. "It seemed so bad, but so many in the community rallied to help us."
Bell said he hoped the guilty plea and sentence would bring Brantley "great resolve in his life and an understanding of true forgiveness. We forgive him."