70-year-old serial thief steals from Palo Alto church, preschool

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Palo Alto police say a 70-year-old Bay Area woman who seemed above suspicion was actually a prolific thief.

Police believe Ethel Jean Hays stole dozens of keys and used them to discreetly get into the buildings she stole from. She is now facing charges for stealing from multiple places including a church and a preschool.

Police say in many cases, she posed as an unassuming visitor, but was looking for an opportunity to find keys to the building. She would then later return when no one was there to allegedly steal whatever she could find.

"It's like a church, it's our last sacred place," said Anne Taddey, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church. Police say that didn't stop Hays from stealing from the church -- not once -- but twice.

"Some members noticed some discrepancies in the counting of the offerings," said vicar Noah Rogness. So, the church set up surveillance cameras that apparently caught Hays in the act. Police say Hays 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 pretty busy," said Palo Alto police officer Brian Philip.

A search of Hays' home revealed much more evidence. "And that led to the discovery 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 these agencies that she's going to, buildings that she's going into, are social services agencies," Phillip 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 Facebook hoping to find the owner.

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

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