Drexel professor accused of stealing pro-Israel signs from synagogue, home in Lower Merion

Drexel University professor Mariana Chilton is one of three women accused of stealing pro-Israel signs from a temple and home in Lower Merion Township

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A Drexel University professor is one of three women accused of stealing pro-Israel signs from outside a synagogue and a home in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, last year.

On Nov. 24, 2023, at 12:58 a.m., a Lower Merion Township police officer was driving when he spotted a white Honda CRV that was stopped at a curb outside the Main Line Reform Temple on 410 East Montgomery Avenue in the town’s Wynnewood section, investigators said.

The officer then spotted two women – later identified as Sarah Prickett, 39, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, and Sam Penn, 25, of New York -- walking towards the SUV. Investigators said at the time there were recent reports of religious signs being stolen or defaced in Lower Merion Township which raised the officer’s suspicions. The officer then approached the Honda and found Prickett, Penn and a third woman, later identified as Mariana Chilton, 56, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, inside the vehicle, according to the criminal complaint. Investigators said the officer also spotted several pro-Israel signs inside the SUV.

The officer repeatedly told the women to lower the window, identified himself and asked the group about the signs inside the SUV, investigators said. Chilton then told him, “We are just taking them because we feel like it is a representative of genocide,” according to the criminal complaint.

When the officer told the women that the signs inside the vehicle belonged to the temple and that they had stolen them, Chilton allegedly replied, “Do you know what we can do sir, is we can just put them back.”

When the officer asked all three women for their identification, they allegedly became uncooperative and asked him why he needed their information.

Chilton told the officer she didn’t have her license or vehicle registration but gave him an insurance card for the SUV, according to the criminal complaint. The officer determined Chilton was the owner of the vehicle and had a valid license but had not registered it with her updated address.

After all of the women identified themselves, the officer moved the signs from the SUV, investigators said. One of the signs stated, “MLRT Stands With Israel,” two of the signs stated “We Stand With Israel,” and one of the signs stated, “Our Community Stands With Israel,” according to the criminal complaint.

On Nov. 27, 2023, at 9:33 a.m., the officer responded to the 500 block of Manor Road in Wynnewood for a report of a theft. The homeowner, Stephen Chopnick, told the officer he noticed someone had stolen his two “We Stand With Israel” signs from his front yard and he had last seen them four days earlier. Investigators later determined those two signs were the same signs that were found inside Chilton’s vehicle, according to the criminal complaint.

The officer then met with a woman who lived nearby. The woman showed the officer home surveillance video that captured Chilton’s Honda CRV driving past her home around the same time as the theft, investigators said.

That same day, the officer met with the executive director of the Main Line Reform Temple. She told the officer a security company that monitors the temple informed her that several pro-Israel signs had been stolen from the property. She later identified the stolen signs as the same ones that were found inside Chilton’s vehicle, according to the criminal complaint.

Chilton, Prickett and Penn were all arrested in connection to the incident.

Chilton is charged with conspiracy – theft by unlawful taking – movable property, conspiracy – criminal trespass, driving an unregistered vehicle, notice of change of name or address, failure to carry a license and receiving stolen property. Her case was moved to county court and is currently in the pretrial stage.

Prickett and Penn are both charged with theft by unlawful taking – movable property, receiving stolen property and criminal trespassing.

During an interview with NBC10 on Tuesday, July 2, 2024, Chopnick told NBC10 he had replaced the stolen signs with new ones that also support Israel.

“I wouldn’t take a sign down. I’ve certainly seen signs that I don’t agree with,” Chopnick said. “I assumed it was somebody who took a different view of the issues in the Middle East than I do.”

Chilton is a professor at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is also the director of Dornsife’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, a research and advocacy center that focuses on developing solutions for hunger and economic insecurity. She also founded Witnesses to Hunger, a research and advocacy project that partners with experts on mothers and caregivers of young children who have experienced hunger and poverty.

Chilton also served as the co-chair of the National Commission on Hunger and was appointed to advise Congress and the United States Department of Agriculture on how to end hunger in America.

NBC10 reached out to Chilton’s attorney as well as Drexel University for statements. We have not yet heard back from them.

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