National Park Service employees are poring over hours of surveillance video hoping for a lead into the theft of baby Jesus from the Nativity scene on Independence Mall.
Officials believe the plastic figurine disappeared Saturday or Sunday. It was displayed at the heavily traveled intersection of Fifth and Market Streets, but no witnesses have come forward.
"We don't know if we have video of the theft occurring," said Jane Cowley, spokeswoman for Independence National Historical Park. "We're looking at hours and hours of footage."
A replacement figure is being supplied gratis by a Havertown family business.
After a Christ child was pilfered twice in 2006 from a community center in Palm Beach County, Fla., a GPS unit was hidden inside the replacement. When the figure was stolen a third time last year, the miracle of modern technology led to its recovery and an arrest.
On Independence Mall, holiday displays are funded, erected, and supposed to be protected by community groups, not the Park Service, Cowley said.
Close by stand a huge menorah and a "Peace on Earth" symbol - a globe on a square white column. A sign says it was "from your friendly neighborhood atheists, freethinkers and humanists."
Looking to purchase a replacement Christ child, the Christmas Creche Committee approached the DiCocco Family's St. Jude Shops, a religious-goods dealer with several area stores.
John Stanton, a committee member, had speculated that the replacement would cost hundreds of dollars.
But the committee is getting a present.
"The DiCocco family is going to be taking care of that," said Gregory DiCocco, of the firm's Havertown location. "That was my mom's wishes that we're following through with."
The firm's seasonal slogan, after all, is "Keeping Christ in Christmas," DiCocco said.
The plastic model may arrive by tomorrow, he added. The cradle, also stolen, was already in stock.
However, the replacement won't be installed until Christmas Eve or Christmas, Stanton said.
Many churches and other Christian groups set up a Nativity without baby Jesus, then add him at the anniversary of his birth. Of course, a last-minute arrival also cuts the risk of a creche kidnapping.
No other security precautions - alarms, GPS trackers or hired guards - are planned, Stanton said.
"No, we'll just hope that maybe all the publicity will cause others to think twice before they would do such an ugly thing," he said.
Two or three times a year, a church or another group requests a replacement for a missing outdoor Jesus, DiCocco said. "I'm talking all over the United States, not just the local area," he said.
While the permit requires those who set up patriotic or other displays to provide their own security, Jim Tayoun, a former city councilman who is on the creche committee, said he'd like the Park Service to keep an eye out.
"That's the job of the historical park," he said. "They've got guards all over the place. We don't have the money to hire anybody. Nor could we ask volunteers to spend hours watching it overnight."
Indeed, vandalism - Mary's hands were broken - was the reason that after 11 years on public display, the more artful plaster figures were replaced with plastic ones this year, he said.