Friday, September 23, 2011

Santa Rosa church embezzlement totals $712,000 in California


Sonoma County prosecutors on Wednesday filed a 14-count criminal complaint against a Guerneville woman suspected of embezzling more than $712,000 from a Santa Rosa church over a period of seven years.

An arrest warrant was issued for Eleanor Zapanta, 51, who worked as the business manager for the Center for Spiritual Living of Santa Rosa, who was named after a months-long investigation.
Zapanta is believed to have stolen the money from 2004 to 2010 through more than 250 unauthorized check transactions, Chief Deputy District Attorney Bill Brockley said.
She is charged with seven felony counts of grand theft by an employee, seven counts of forging business documents and a white-collar crime enhancement for fraud in excess of $500,000, Brockley said.
She faces up to 12 years in state prison if convicted, he said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Zapanta had not been arrested and prosecutors said they did not know her whereabouts.
Prosecutors would not provide details about how the theft went undetected or how it was discovered.
“The facts we're alleging speak for themselves,” Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said.
Norma Miller, a 20-year church member and senior spirit organizer, said the money loss came to light when two board members became suspicious. But more details weren't available.
Senior minister Ed Vijoen has not return calls over several days seeking comment. He announced the loss to parishioners after Sunday services over the past two weeks.
Rumors had been swirling for days among congregants that Zapanta may have fled law enforcement. She was charged with two felonies for each year of the alleged theft. The total loss was $712,948, Brockley said.
Investigators from the Santa Rosa Police Department began looking into the case this spring, Cook said.

The 1,000-member center is located on Occidental Road. It is affiliated with the United Centers for Spiritual Living based in Golden, Colo.
According to the center website, members honor and respect “the interconnectedness of all life.” The center features an animal ministry and drum circles, among other activities.
In an interview last year, Viljoen said the center finances its $1.2 million annual budget with donations. Book sales and fees from classes generate additional revenue.
The alleged embezzlement is just the latest in a string of similar thefts this year on the North Coast.
It is the biggest so far, eclipsing the $400,000 police said was stolen from the Kids Street Learning Center in Santa Rosa by a former business manager. In that case, Sheila Accornero, 42, of Cloverdale is suspected of taking the money over 2 1/2 years.
She pleaded not guilty in August.

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