A former Gadsden church bookkeeper/treasurer/pianist was arrested Wednesday, accused of stealing almost $270,000 from a small church during her tenure there.
Deborah K. Coker, 60, was charged with one count of first-degree theft by deception, Gadsden Detective Clark Thompson said. She has been released on $5,000 bond.
Thompson said police investigated the theft of money during at 10-year period at the McCauley’s Chapel Methodist Church on Tabor Road.
The theft came to light after the church’s pastor, Curtis Scott, returned from a furlough and noticed some accounts had been seriously depleted.
“As a pastor, I don’t handle any money,” Scott said. “My job is to preach the gospel, and grow disciples.”
There were others at the church who should have received bank statements, he said — the chief of trustees, the board of administrators and the secretary — but the bookkeeper had stopped that, and no one said anything.
At business meetings, Scott said, “they were shown spreadsheets that showed what she wanted us to see.”
“All the bills were being paid,” for the church, Thompson said, so no one had any reason to suspect anything was wrong.
But they found evidence that Coker had been paying personal bills out of church accounts, Thompson said, including payments to a mortgage company, Alabama Power, Verizon, Lowe’s, Sears, Belk, J.C. Penney and many others.
Scott said he started looking at bank accounts and had an audit done that uncovered the scope of the theft.
The woman received a salary from the church, Thompson explained, but she’d been paying herself multiple times a month.
The pastor said when he confronted her about the theft, she admitted it.
“We were just sad and shocked,” Scott said. She had been at the church a long time, he said, “Longer than I’ve been here.
“We thought it was our responsibility to the community and our obligation to our faith to turn it over to the authorities,” he said.
Scott said he believes there’s a message McCauley’s Chapel can share with other churches: trust but verify.
That’s part of why he chose to speak about the theft. The woman arrested, he said, is a very talented pianist, and he could see something like this happening at another church as well.
Thompson said churches need to have some checks and balances when it comes to money. The business of the church needs to be handled like a business.
“Your treasurer and your bookkeeper should never be the same person,” he said. “Be aware that this kind of thing can and does happen.”
Sgt. John Hallman said no one else was involved in the theft at McCauley Chapel.
He said he’s concerned that some churches or businesses, if they see evidence of embezzlement, may just sweep it under the rug.
“They may worry about their reputation and never bring charges,” he said. “I think anytime you are a victim of something like this, you need to notify authorities.”
Scott said automatic payments had been set up for a mortgage and other bills, coming out of church accounts.
He said a couple of loans had been taken out to put money back into church accounts, but the payments on the loans were being made out of church accounts, too.
McCauley’s Chapel is a small church, Scott said.
“A little smaller, after this,” he said. “It’s affected us a little bit. I think we’ll be fine.
“It’s brought us together a little, too. We’re definitely going to be little more careful,” Scott said.
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