The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports…
“The theft of more than $760,000 from Chester United Methodist Church ruined the parish’s credit, forced layoffs of church staff, caused mission programs to be eliminated and necessitated $200,000 in loans to pay bills as the congregation struggled to recover.
The church’s pastor and two other parish leaders testified Wednesday in Chesterfield Circuit Court about the devastating effects — emotional and financial — that former church finance administrator Jerri S. Hunter fostered by embezzling at least $760,389 from the church over 4½ years through deceptive bookkeeping practices.
“When our congregation first heard that Jerri Hunter had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from our treasury, the reaction was anger, hurt, disbelief, betrayal and great sorrow,” James Watkins, lay leader of the 1,400-member congregation, wrote in a victim-impact statement.
“Many members of our church continue to experience the same tragic impact that we suffered when we first learned about (the) embezzlement,” Watkins added. “How could she do this awful thing? While she was spending about $100,000 a year in offerings and tithes we had to delay certain plans and aspirations … because of a shortage of funds.”
The church received some measure of justice Wednesday when Judge Steven C. McCallum sentenced Hunter to 100 years in prison with 90 years suspended on five felony embezzlement counts. The 10-year active prison term exceeded by nearly five years the high end of state sentencing guidelines calculated for Hunter, who had one previous felony theft conviction.
Hunter, 40, also was ordered to make restitution for the full amount and make monthly payments of at least $1,000 after she is released from prison.
“Her attorney indicated that she had paid some money to him and he had that — a few thousand dollars — in an escrow account,” said Chesterfield prosecutor Robert J. Fierro Jr. “But no money has been transmitted to the victims (yet)”
Evidence showed that Hunter spent the illicit funds — church leaders now believe the total exceeds $800,000 — to pay for personal expenses and to operate, promote and purchase inventory for her business, Gotta Have It Fashion & Bags in Petersburg, and for a talent promotional business she ran.
The stolen funds bought airline tickets, hotel and motel accommodations, rental cars, Netflix subscriptions, pediatric dentistry bills, business and licensing fees, shoes, business signs, fashion apparel, college sorority dues, Virginia State University fees and more than $100,000 in PayPal transactions for items related to her business. She even used $3,500 to bail two people she knew out of jail in Oklahoma.
“We are talking hundreds, if not thousands, of transactions between 2008 and 2013,” Fierro said of the purchases she made.
Hunter, who was not a member of the church, was responsible for all the church’s electronic transfers and transactions between accounts, and police said much of the theft occurred through fraudulent use of credit cards. She concealed her theft by diverting church credit card e-statements to a personal outside email address she controlled for her business, authorities said.
Watkins wrote that Hunter’s “deliberate, cleverly planned betrayal” upended the church’s finances, and he enumerated a long list of negative consequences that included the layoff of an associate pastor and the reduction or elimination of church programs that fed, tutored and mentored at-risk children in a low-income housing project and supplied backpacks filled with food to local school children “who would otherwise not eat on the weekend.”
“The damage done to our church took place over a number of years,” the Rev. Sylvia Meadows wrote in her victim-impact statement. “The ripples and ramifications of such a serious trespass continue to be exposed. It will take years for Chester UMC to fully recover .”
Meadows, who became the church’s pastor at about the time the theft was first discovered, noted that Hunter had been “well-loved and respected” by many in the church. “How do you deal with having a friend who was like your own family betraying you like this … someone you prayed with regularly … (and) shared special holidays celebrating together?”