Woman guilty of taking $760,000 from church
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Mar 7, 2014, 16:06
CHESTERFIELD — A Hopewell woman accused of stealing more than three-quarters of a million dollars from a church pleaded guilty to five charges in Chesterfield Circuit Court.
Jerri Hunter, 39, was found guilty of stealing money from the church over a period of five years. During court on Thursday over 30 members of the congregation from Chester United Methodist Church filled the courtroom to hear Hunter’s guilty pleas. The five felony counts of embezzlement ranged from Feb. 1, 2011, to July 1, 2013.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Fierro Jr. told Judge Steven McCallum that Hunter was hired in 2008 by Chester UMC as the finance administrator and was in charge of the billing and management of assets of the church. Fierro said shortly after she was hired, she began misusing and diverting funds.
Fierro said one way Hunter diverted funds was by making purchases on several of the church’s credit cards.
Beginning in 2008, Hunter began making numerous purchases with the church’s money. Fierro presented to the court that Hunter spent money at Hopewell Combined District Court, Pediatric Dentistry, PayPal transactions totaling over $100,000 and power bills through Dominion Virginia Power.
Hunter also used thousands of dollars to help fund her businesses in Petersburg, Gotta Have It Fashion and Bags. Fierro said Hunter spent the church’s money on apparel for her company and signs and used funds to pay for business licenses and fees associated with her business.
In addition to funding her business in Petersburg, Hunter was also using the church’s money to fund a promotional business where she was employed.
Though the name of the business was not given in court, Fierro said the promotional company had contracts with talent providers to make appearances at certain events. The evidence presented in court stipulated that Hunter had to book hotel rooms and flights for the entertainment to come in to perform. Hunter spent a large amount of church funds on airline tickets for Delta Airways and U.S. Airways, along with travel expenses through Expedia.
Hunter tried to hide her diversion of funds by having receipts of the transactions and bank statements for the church sent to her personal email account. Fierro said the church would not have had access to that account.
In 2008, Hunter embezzled $6,342 from Chester UMC. In 2009, the total jumped to $76,135 In 2010, Hunter spent a total of $111,337. During 2011, Hunter diverted $195,161. In 2012, the total reached $272,037. For the five months she was employed in 2013, Hunter stole $99,377. The amount stolen from Chester UMC reaches a total of $760,389.
It is also an amount the church will likely never see again. Harold Crowder, vice chairman of the finance committee, said while the court proceedings for this matter had been a bit slow, he along with other members of the congregation were pleased with the outcome in court.
“From last year, until now, we are just trying to move beyond this, or put it behind us if you will,” Crowder said. “Our focus is in our faith and on God. While the congregation has been impacted significantly the congregation has stayed behind their faith.”
Hunter was arrested on July 29 in Suffolk and interviewed by local authorities the following day. Fierro said while Hunter expressed remorse for her actions, she did not estimate the total of how much she stole quite right. Hunter told authorities she stole $50,000 to $60,000.
After the evidence had been presented to court, Fierro brought before the judge the issue of bond for Hunter. Since her first court appearance last year, Hunter had been out on bond. Fierro said the charges facing Hunter were “serious.”
“The stolen money was from a particularly vulnerable institution and in effect it is gone at this point,” Fierro told the judge. “The defendant does not have a firm grasp on the gravity of the situation.”
On Thursday, Hunter was also facing a failure to appear charge, in which she missed her court date in Jan. 16 due to a medical emergency. Her defense attorney, Russell Bowles, explained to the court in January that he received what he called a “desperate” phone call that morning. Hunter was on her way to Southside Regional Medical Center with a medical emergency.
Search warrants of her medical records indicated that on that day in January, Hunter did not appear at SRMC until 4:55 p.m. Her court case was scheduled at 1 p.m. Fierro also said records indicate Hunter was never admitted to the hospital.
Bowles told the court the Jan. 16 court date was the only date his client had missed and said in what were five trips to the Chesterfield Courthouse, she has been prompt. He also told the court Hunter was not a flight risk.
“She is here today,” Bowles said. “If she was running she would have done that a long time ago.”
After hearing from both the defense and the prosecution, Judge McCallum revoked bond for Hunter and she was taken into custody following the court proceedings. Before he handed down his ruling, he said he was not persuaded that it was “medically necessary” for her to miss court in January.
“I think there is some risk to the public,” McCallum said.
Even after the judge handed down the ruling, Bowles still presented another argument. He told the court if she is locked up, she will not be able to work, thus making it that much more difficult for her to make restitution payments to the church. Despite his final plea, the judge said his decision was going to remain the same.
Now that Hunter is behind bars and the case is entering the final stages, Crowder said the church is going to continue to move forward and continue to provide for the congregation at Chester UMC.
“The congregation rallied and did not abandon their church,” Crowder said. “There is not a significant number that moved away from the church”
Crowder also said the church has since recovered from the stolen funds, noting the church has been able to “stop the bleeding,” and start getting caught up with other payments. However, Crowder said the church will probably never see those almost $800,000 again.
“How do you recover,” Crowder said. “Who knows how we could have benefited from that money had we had that available. ... There’s a chance that money can be replaced but it’s hard to imagine restitution.”
When sentenced in June, Hunter is facing a maximum potential of 100 years in jail and a maximum fine of $25,000.