Church administrator charged with stealing $360K from congregation, food pantry, youth ministry
Written by The Ministry of Jesus Christ on May 30, 2022
A 36-year-old wife of a former police chief has been charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for stealing more than $360,000 from her church in California while she was an administrator between 2013 and 2018.
A federal grand jury in Sacramento charged Chanell Easton of Oklahoma City, who was arrested last week, with 22 counts of wire fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft for a scheme to embezzle funds of a church in Yuba City, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in a statement.
During her employment from June 2013 to February 2018, Easton stole over $360,000, including from the church’s community food pantry and youth ministry, according to court papers. The church was only identified in the indictment as “Church 1.”
“The purpose of the scheme and artifice to defraud was to obtain, convert, and spend
money belonging to Church 1, without the authorization and knowledge of the church treasurer and governing body, for unauthorized personal purposes that did not benefit Church 1,” the indictment reads.
Easton is alleged to have secretly opened five business credit card accounts in the church’s name and also used a credit card of the church’s youth pastor for personal purchases — including purchases at a hair salon, retail stores, online retailers and a vacation rental service. She also allegedly used the card to purchase concert tickets.
Prosecutors say Easton paid off the balance with the church’s money.
She is also alleged to have transferred money directly from the church’s bank accounts to her own personal account, paid down the balance of her own personal credit card and paid her cellphone provider for her personal bills and for new phones.
Investigators say Easton wrote checks to others for personal expenses and to herself, forging the signatures of the church’s treasurer or the head volunteer of the church’s food pantry.
If convicted, she faces 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of wire fraud. She also faces a mandatory two-year sentence on each count of aggravated identity theft.
The charges against Easton follow an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elliot C. Wong and Christopher S. Hales are prosecuting the case.
Citing multiple sources, The Appeal-Democrat reports that Easton is the wife of former Marysville, California, Police Department Chief Aaron Easton and worked as an administrator for St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Yuba City. The Justice Department has not confirmed the name of the church she worked for.
According to the charging document, Easton used a youth pastor’s credit card to buy jewelry online. She also is alleged to have used a Bank of America business credit card to buy two tickets to a country music concert that cost about $923.54. She also is accused of charging $2,072.20 to the Bank of America card to rent a vacation home in Fort Bragg, California.
“EASTON also used the Church 1 youth ministry’s credit card to incur thousands of dollars in charges for unauthorized personal purchases that did not benefit Church 1,” the indictment reads. “Though Church 1 had authorized its youth minister to have one BoA business credit card and to use it for authorized purchases relating to youth ministry activities, EASTON used the youth minister’s credit card for personal purchases without the authorization and knowledge of Church 1’s treasurer, youth minister, and governing body.”
The charges against Easton come as many churches have been victimized by fraud and embezzlement, including former church officials using church credit cards for personal expenses.
Pennsylvania pastor Rev. Wayne Peck, who retired from the Community House Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh in 2017, turned himself in to authorities in early May after being charged with stealing over $357,000 from the congregation he served for 40 years.
Prosecutors say Peck stole large sums of money from the church’s bank account by writing checks payable to himself that were deposited into bank accounts he and his wife controlled. The money was allegedly used to pay their mortgage, travel, meals and utility bills.
Last November, Lisa Dawn Stabeno, a 52-year-old woman from Lubbock, Texas, was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in federal prison as a plea deal for using more than $450,000 from church funds for personal expenses.
U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix called her actions “brazen thefts” from Church on the Rock.
Stabeno, who worked as an accounts manager for Church on the Rock’s “Dream Center,” an outreach program for “underserved individuals,” had pleaded guilty to two counts of bank fraud.
Judge Hendrix said: “You were trusted with accounts and misappropriated funds. … You did it again, and again and again.”
“She began by using two credit cards — one assigned to a church employee and one assigned to a pastor — to pay personal expenses, including a car loan she co-financed with her daughter, medical and dental expenses, clothing, salon services, and restaurant meals. She also used the credit cards to purchase supplies for a bakery she co-owned with her daughters.”