Deacon charged in theft of church donations At least $2,420 was stolen in Odenton, police say

April 16, 1997|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,SUN STAFF

Call it Judgment Day. Accountants from a Chattanooga, Tenn., firm are expected in Maryland in two weeks to audit the books of an Odenton church where a deacon is accused of stealing 77 donation envelopes.

Church officials resisted the evidence of sin under their noses -- until they caught a man red-handed in the collection basket after services April 6. Even now, with police and investigators involved, they won't talk about it with reporters or most other outsiders.

Ronald Lock, 40, of the 2700 block of Helmsley Road in Baltimore, has been charged with theft over $300 and has an Aug. 8 court date. He could face up to 15 years in prison or a $1,000 fine.

Police think at least $2,420 was taken from the Full Gospel Emancipation Life Center, in the 8000 block of Redmiles Lane.

"I think anytime anybody touches the Lord's money, it's a sad offense," said accountant Michael Chitwood, president of Chitwood & Chitwood, the church's accounting firm. "Don't ever touch the Lord's gold. Don't ever touch the glory."

But the church also believes in repentance, forgiveness, restoration and restitution, he said, although it won't force the latter.

"We're taught forgiveness. We preach forgiveness. We believe in forgiveness," he said. "And if someone makes repentance and wants to make restitution, they will have a choice."

Pastor Jacqueline Norris, who reported the theft this month, did not return phone calls. Assistant pastor Ronald Thornton declined to be interviewed and referred calls to Chitwood & Chitwood.

Police said Norris had told them over the past year that Kathy Anderson, the church bookkeeper, repeatedly found sums of money missing from the donation box.

Church members also had complained that they donated more money in 1996 than was reflected in the tax statements the church sent them, police said. The complaints prompted an internal investigation.

Chitwood said his firm will look at donations for 1995 and 1996.

Full Gospel is "a fine ministry, a ministry of integrity," he said. "This is just someone who was taking money before it was coming into the church's possession."

The accountant and police said ushers collect money, then bring it to the assistant pastor's office to count and credit it.

On April 6, church employee Jay Hilton saw a man enter the office after the ushers had left and watched him take several collection envelopes, police said.

Police said Hilton told Thornton. Then they stayed to see whether the man would return to the office to steal again.

He returned, and when he tried to leave the office, Thornton stopped him, found 77 collection envelopes inside a larger envelope and held the man until Western District Officer Steven M. Hlavach arrived, police said.

The man told Hlavach he took the money because of financial problems, according to charging documents.

The man confessed in writing, the documents say, and told Hlavach at the church, "I'm sorry I did this."

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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