A GPS device mounted inside the life-size ceramic figurine led sheriff's deputies to a nearby apartment, where it was found face down on the carpet. An 18-year-old woman was arrested in the theft.
Giving up on old-fashioned padlocks and trust, a number of churches, synagogues, governments and ordinary citizens are turning to technology to protect holiday displays from pranks or prejudice.
About 70 churches and synagogues eager to avoid the December police blotter jumped at a security company's offer of free use of GPS systems and hidden cameras this month to guard their mangers and menorahs.
Others, like the Herrera family of Richland Hills, Texas, took matters into their own hands. Upset after their teeter-totter was stolen, the family trained surveillance cameras on their yard and was surprised when footage showed a teenage girl stealing a baby Jesus worth almost $500. Police have obtained the tape.
"They took the family Jesus," said Gloria Herrera, 48, a Catholic. "How can anybody do that?"
For two consecutive years, thieves made off with the baby Jesus figurine in Wellington, a well-off village of 60,000 in Palm Beach County, Fla. The ceramic original, donated by a local merchant, was made in Italy and worth about $1,800, said John Bonde, Wellington's director of operations.
So last year, officials took a GPS unit normally used to track the application of mosquito spray and implanted it in the latest replacement figurine. After that one disappeared, sheriff's deputies quickly tracked it down.
Sensing opportunity in that kind of success story, New York-based BrickHouse Security is offering up to 200 nonprofit religious institutions a free month's use of security cameras and LightningGPS products it distributes.
Chief executive officer Todd Morris said the idea was born after a few churches asked about one-month rentals instead of longer contracts that are the norm. The first 20 or so applications came from synagogues, he said.
Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of Lubavitch of Center City, a Philadelphia-area branch of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, signed up even though his previous biggest scare involved the wind knocking down a menorah.
"People are very security conscious, and this is simply a precaution," said Goldman, who will put a GPS on one menorah and a camera on another. "It's sad ... but it's the reality we're faced with."
As members of a minority religion, Jews are probably hit harder when their religious symbols are vandalized, said Deborah Lauter, national civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League.
"If Baby Jesus is removed, it tends to be seen as a prank," Lauter said. "Vandalism or theft of a menorah is just more sensitive. You feel like you're really being targeted for your religion."
The ADL identified 699 incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2007, consistent with recent years.
So far in 2008, Baby Jesus has appeared in several police reports. At First United Methodist Church in Kittanning, Pa., a baby Jesus was stolen and replaced with a pumpkin. In Eureka Springs, Ark., someone who absconded with a plastic baby Jesus from a public display last week also took the concrete block and chain that was supposed to act as a deterrent.
Previously, stolen Jesus figurines have also been defaced with profanity or Satanic symbols.
The incidents raise a question: Is stealing Baby Jesus harmless juvenile fun, or anti-Christian?
"I suspect most of it is childish pranks," said attorney Mike Johnson of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal group. "Clearly, there are adults with an agenda to remove Christ from Christmas. But they tend to occupy themselves with the courts and courtroom of public opinion."
Stephen Nissenbaum, a retired history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of "The Battle for Christmas," views the thefts as neither innocent vandalism nor religious hate crimes.
"What it means is that it's OK to go around violating even pretty important norms, as long as real human harm isn't being done," he said. "It's not exactly devaluing Christianity, but it is sort of a ritualized challenge to it. It could be Christian kids doing it -- and on Jan. 2 they become good Christians again."