By Jann Wiswall

A Sunday morning mass at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church is hardly the place or time one would expect regular citizens to thwart an attempted robbery, but that’s exactly what happened on Nov. 29 when Barbara Ward noticed a stranger entering the church through a side door and heading to the sacristy.

She alerted her husband, Mark Ward, who investigated and spotted an older man who was holding a lockbox he had just removed from the church’s unlocked safe.

Ward, who is superintendent of Ellicottville Central Schools and a long-time volunteer firefighter, asked the man what he was doing. The man tried to run away, but Ward stopped him and a “tussle” ensued.

As Ward continued to contain the man, Barb Ward found someone with a phone who called 911. Parishioner Matt Finn, a teacher and coach at ECS, helped Ward restrain the man until Ellicottville police officer Kelly Phillips arrived.

Phillips immediately handcuffed the alleged perpetrator, Gary A. Heinaman, age 77, took him into custody and booked him into Cattaraugus County jail in lieu of $1,500 bail on third-degree criminal trespass, attempted petit larceny and possession of burglar’s tools.

“The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes,” Ward said, “but it felt like a lot longer.”

The police credit parishioners with catching a criminal. Heinaman, whose address is in Buffalo, is on parole from a stint in prison and is wanted on a charge in another state.

“If Barb hadn’t seen him, he might have gotten away with it. We were just in the right place at the right time,” he said.

In hindsight, Ward knows that it could have been a much more dangerous situation.

“He could have had a gun,” he said, “but I wasn’t going to let him get away.”