FINCASTLE — A church treasurer who embezzled $99,000 intended for the needy — spending most of the money on her living expenses and the rest for luxury purchases such as a beach vacation — was sentenced Tuesday to two years in prison.
“I take full responsibility,” a tearful Stephanie Everett told Botetourt County Circuit Judge Malfourd “Bo” Trumbo minutes before her sentence was pronounced.
“Don’t say that,” the judge interjected. Cutting Everett off in mid-sentence, Trumbo said he doubted the veracity of her version of an embezzlement scheme that wreaked financial havoc at Cave Rock Baptist Church in Troutville.
“If you want full responsibility, I’ll give it to you,” Trumbo said, warning the defendant that he could impose 10 years in prison.
Taken aback, Everett turned to her fellow parishioners, who packed the courtroom pews for her sentencing hearing. The 43-year-old then apologized for what she had done to her church and her family.
According to testimony over two days, the thefts caused a deep rift in a small church where any meaningful financial oversight was replaced by full trust in the treasurer. Everett had sole authority over a debit card that she used to purchase everything from iTunes music and fast-food meals to tickets for a Virginia Tech football game and a week’s stay at a Myrtle Beach vacation home.
“I didn’t even know they had a debit card,” Earl Crowder, a former deacon at the church, testified.
“As far as I know, they never did really have a budget. … We just trusted Stephanie.”
For about five years, the church’s 50-some members dropped cash in collection plates and wrote checks for larger amounts — assuming that their money was going to help members of the congregation and others who were struggling financially.
Lax bookkeeping practices made it easy for Everett to convert the funds for her own use, a prosecutor said.
“This is money that people donated to the church that they thought would support the church’s good work and help those in need,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney John Alexander said.
“This was not a momentary lapse of judgment,” Alexander said, noting that Everett made hundreds of transactions dating back to 2012. “This was week after week, for years.”
When Everett was first charged a year ago with credit card fraud, theft and eight counts of embezzlement, authorities estimated the amount taken at more than $10,000. But after a detailed accounting at the direction of Trumbo, that sum had grown to $99,227 by Tuesday.
Until changing her story at the end, Everett had sought to attribute the misappropriated money to a poor system of financial oversight at the church and unclear directions on how its money should be spent.
A bill of more than $200 a month for cable television at her home was justified because she needed the internet access it provided to conduct church business, she explained. Everett billed lunches at fast-food restaurants while running errands for the church, and said many of the purchases at retail stores were gifts for members of the congregation or its pastor.
“A lot of stuff I was told to do, and I did it,” she said.
Other expenses, such as direct cash withdrawals and payments for cellphones and car washes for her personal vehicles, were harder to explain.
“How can you justify that?” Trumbo asked at one point about $9 car washes billed to the church.
The judge imposed a sentence of 10 years on the 10 felony charges, to be suspended after Everett serves two years in prison.
After the embezzlement was discovered during an audit of the church’s account by the Bank of Botetourt, unrest within the congregation eventually led to the resignation of the pastor, Bryan Lawrence. The former Roanoke police officer became ordained as a Southern Baptist minister after he was seriously injured while making an off-duty arrest in 2008.
Unable to walk easily even with the assistance of crutches, Lawrence was allowed to sit on the front row of the courtroom gallery for his testimony instead of taking the witness stand. “It was affecting my health, yes,” he said in response to questions from Alexander about tension within the church.
Everett’s attorney, Dirk Padgett, disputed calculations that his client stole nearly $100,000, arguing that the co-mingling of her spending and that for the church was difficult to sort out.
Most of the members of the church still support Everett, he said; a recent collection garnered $24,000 to go toward her restitution.
“I think the church has been affected forever,” he said of the tight-knit congregation. “Because their family starts with the church.”