Jerri S. Hunter was hired in 2007 at Chester United Methodist Church.
The former finance administrator for Chester United Methodist Church pleaded guilty Thursday to five felony embezzlement counts for stealing more than $760,000 over 4½ years — a crime that the 1,300-member church has described as devastating.
Jerri S. Hunter, 39, who was hired in 2007 to help with the church’s finances, grew bolder in her thievery as the years rolled on. She incrementally increased the sums she stole and managed to conceal through deceptive bookkeeping practices, according to evidence presented in Chesterfield Circuit Court as more than two dozen church members looked on.
Chesterfield County prosecutor Robert J. Fierro Jr. told the court that Hunter started relatively small, stealing $6,342 in 2008. But the amounts climbed dramatically as the theft went undetected: $76,145 in 2009, $111,337 in 2010, $195,161 in 2011, $272,037 in 2012 and $99,377 last year, which covered only four or five months before she was dismissed in May for an unrelated matter.
In a summary of evidence, Fierro said Hunter spent the illicit funds to pay for personal expenses and to operate, promote and purchase inventory for her business, Gotta Have It Fashion & Bags on North Sycamore Street in Petersburg, and for a talent promotional business she ran.
Fierro read a long list of items Hunter purchased with the congregation’s money: airline tickets, hotel and motel accommodations, rental cars, Netflix subscriptions, pediatric dentistry bills, business and licensing fees, shoes, business signs, fashion apparel, FedEx shipping charges, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority dues, Virginia State University fees, goods from CVS Pharmacy and more than $100,000 in PayPal transactions for items related to her business, among other purchases.
Church leaders began their own investigation before contacting county police last July 12 and hired a forensic accountant and a certified public accountant to review the church’s financial records.
Police said church officials noticed discrepancies between bank deposits made in church accounts and the amounts that were officially recorded. They also discovered that Hunter in April 2012 had cashed two paychecks for the same period of work after claiming she had lost her initial check and was issued a second one.
Much of the theft occurred through fraudulent use of church credit cards. To conceal her theft, Hunter, a Hopewell resident, diverted church credit card e-statements to a personal outside email address she controlled for her business, Fierro told the court.
Hunter, who was not a member of the church on Percival Street in Chester, was responsible for all electronic transfers and transactions between accounts, Harold Crowder, vice chairman of the church’s finance committee, said last year.
Hunter admitted taking church funds when confronted by a police investigator June 30. But Fierro said she downplayed the amount and the time frame of the theft, saying she took $50,000 to $60,000 over two years.
Hunter was originally charged with 14 felony embezzlement counts but prosecutors withdrew nine of the charges in October.
Circuit Judge Steven C. McCallum accepted Hunter’s pleas Thursday and set sentencing for June 4, when several church members are expected to testify about the impact of the loss.
State sentencing guidelines based on Hunter’s background have been calculated preliminarily to be between 2 years, one month and 5 years, two months, Fierro said.
Hunter was convicted in 2006 in Lawton, Okla., of a felony charge of failing to return rental property and sentenced to serve about six months in jail.
The judge denied defense attorney Russell Bowles’ request to allow Hunter to remain free on bond pending sentencing. Bowles said Hunter is trying to raise money to make restitution to the church and her efforts will be impeded if she is incarcerated now.
McCallum remanded Hunter to jail, citing the amount and duration of the theft. He said with her conviction there was now “some degree of risk” in her potentially fleeing.