Two men who stole a historic solid brass church bell, chopped it into pieces and sold them at a scrap yard are likely to face felony charges this week, the Le Sueur County Sheriff's Office said.

The suspects apparently backed up a truck to where the 300- to 400-pound bell was displayed outside St. Paul's Lutheran Church near German Lake and chopped ice to get it out of the frozen ground sometime between the end of church services on Jan. 17 and midafternoon the next day. A man who came to clear the sidewalk of snow and ice discovered the bell missing, said Jeff Hoffmann, the church council president.

"That's pretty low," Hoffmann said. "I guess they were hard up for cash."

The small congregation bought the bell in 1907 for $330. It rang in the church tower until 1972, when the building was hit by lightning and destroyed in a fire. The scorched bell was the only artifact that was salvaged, Hoffman said.

The damaged bell was saved and placed in landscaping at the front entrance of the rebuilt church.

News of the theft spread slowly through the congregation composed mainly of elderly members. Hoffmann told them about the theft at Sunday services.

Investigators on Monday said they have identified two male suspects, one 27 and one 28, who are believed to have swiped the 109-year-old bell. Authorities have recovered three pieces of the bell, including one larger piece.

"Our investigators resolved this incident very quickly, but unfortunately the bell was already dismantled and sold at scrap yard," Sheriff Dave Tietz said.

The suspects, who were detained but later released, could face charges of felony theft and criminal damage to property, Tietz said.

As for the bell's pieces, Hoffmann said the church will do something with the scrap, perhaps taking it to a machinist.

"Maybe we will make it into a cross that will hang indoors," Hoffmann said

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768