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story.lead_photo.caption The statue of the baby Jesus rests in a manger as part of a Nativity scene at Basin Spring Park in Eureka Springs in 2009. - Photo by Michael Woods

Stealing the baby Jesus statue from a Nativity scene in Eureka Springs' Basin Park was a fad for several years.

But the tradition came to a screaming halt in 2009 when an alarm was attached to the fiberglass messiah.

"I'm told it's louder than a police alarm or ambulance alarm," said Shirley Bird.

Bird, 78, is social chairman for the Eureka Springs chapter of Beta Sigma Phi sorority, which has sponsored the Nativity scene since 1950.

Since the alarm was installed, the statue has remained in the creche in Basin Park throughout the Christmas season, said Bird.

The alarm goes off a couple of times every year, but it apparently scares the would-be thieves away.

After the statue was stolen five times and recovered intact only twice, the women of Beta Sigma Phi finally came up with a theft deterrent that works, Bird said.

"We've solved the problem."

Previously, the women tried surveillance cameras and chaining the statue to a concrete block. But a thief in 2008 made off with the statue, bed, concrete block and chain. And the video camera didn't get a good image of his face.

Christopher Robin Bell, 19, of Green Forest was arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft in the 2008 case. The baby Jesus statue was recovered, but it had been vandalized. The $375 fiberglass statue was too damaged to return to the creche, so the sorority had to buy another one. Bell was sentenced to 49 days in jail and ordered to pay $855 in fines and court costs, said Eureka Springs District Court Clerk Linda Wishon.

The thievery began with the animals, Bird said. A cow and donkey in the manger had "re-positional" heads, she said. Kids would remove the heads and hide them on the hill behind the Basin Park band shell. That had been going on since Bird joined the sorority in 1969.

"The kids wanted us to find them," said Bird. "We never did find the last one, a donkey head. We used that donkey for years without a head. You position it just right, put the head just right, and people didn't even notice."

Eureka Springs' baby Jesus obsession gained national attention in 2005, when Virginia Voiers, then 70, stole the statue on a birthday dare. Voiers, a Eureka Springs resident, told police that she wanted to show her husband a blue-eyed Jewish baby, according to an article about the theft in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Police caught her shortly after she took the statue, which she said she wanted to return because that is how a prank works.

Voiers was initially charged with theft of property, but the charge was later amended to criminal mischief, said Wishon. District Judge Marianne McBeth ordered Voiers to pay $180 in fines and court costs.

Stealing the statue would be much more difficult now. Besides the alarm, the infant Jesus is much heavier than he used to be. The statue is molded into fiberglass hay, which is attached to a box with weights, Bird said. It would take two men to lift it, she said.

Jo Hall of Eureka Springs, the sorority's president, said some of the figurines in the creche date back to the 1950s. The sorority would like to use them for as long as possible, but they're delicate and may have to be replaced soon.

"We put this up every year right around Thanksgiving," said Hall. "All the shop owners are so pleased. So many people come to Eureka to view all the Christmas decorations we have and the Nativity. It's a symbol of the beginning of the holiday season."

Stealing baby Jesus statues from Nativity scenes isn't all that uncommon, based on news stories from around the country. Often, the statues are returned to the creches before Christmas, but not always.

And attempts to thwart thieves have varied. For example, BrickHouse Security of New York City started a program in 2005 called "Saving Jesus," in which it supplies free matchbox-sized GPS tracking devices for churches and other nonprofit organizations to attach to the statues.

"Baby Jesus is the most popular target, but Santa figures, elves, reindeer, large menorahs and other holiday symbols often fall victim to kidnappers as well," according to a 2012 news release from BrickHouse.

Marc Horowitz, creative director for BrickHouse Security, said, "Hundreds of organizations -- primarily churches -- have participated over the years."

Bird said the sorority considered GPS tracking but went with the alarm instead. And so far, it's working.

NW News on 12/14/2014

Print Headline: Baby Jesus safe, sound

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