Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hanover,Virginia pastor linked to extortion plot charged with embezzlement

A Hanover County church pastor who was the target of an alleged $100,000 extortion plot has been charged with embezzling from his church.

Chris Allen Phillips, 50, was arrested Thursday night and released on a $6,000 personal recognizance bond; he is scheduled to make a court appearance June 5.

The arrest marks a new twist in a broad and ongoing investigation by Hanover authorities into a sex-for-money and extortion operation that is focusing on Tonya Farnsworth, 33. Farnsworth was arrested May 1 in Florida and last week was returned to Virginia, where she was charged with extorting Phillips.

She also faces a prostitution charge in Henrico County and multiple charges of failing to appear for court hearings.

Court documents show that Phillips helped Hanover investigators unravel a scheme in which he paid Farnsworth as much as $100,000 to keep secret a sexual encounter Phillips had with her last year. Farnsworth claimed the encounter was filmed, Phillips told investigators.

According to a search warrant, Hanover authorities taped statements between Phillips and Farnsworth in which she admitted receiving $100,000 from him.

It was not clear how investigators first learned of the alleged extortion plot, investigations of which are continuing through examinations of bank accounts and payments to Farnsworth, search warrants show.

“When the victim (Phillips) sent a message that he was worried about the pictures Farnsworth had of him, Farnsworth responded: ‘… and you should be,’ ” according to a search warrant.

But now Phillips is charged with taking $80,000 from the Hanover church where he had served as youth minister until recently.

An elder with Mechanicsville Advent Christian Church said this week that Phillips is on leave without pay but declined to comment further. Phillips lives in the 8000 block of Studley Road off U.S. 301, across from the church.

Phillips’ wife operates a licensed day care facility at the church. A campus of the Dominion School for Autism also is at the church, which has about 55 active members.

The dates of the church embezzlement align with the dates that Hanover investigators allege in a search warrant that a male victim of Farnsworth received instructions “five to seven days a week from early January 2013 to late March 2013” to place money in a black Lincoln Navigator.

The vehicle is still in the front yard of the home on West End Drive in Henrico where Farnsworth lived and where the liaison with Phillips occurred, according to the search warrant.

The extortion victim, identified as Phillips in Farnsworth’s arrest records, had encountered Farnsworth, posing as someone named Tiffany, on a website where she advertised to meet with men.

But after a Dec. 22, 2012, session that cost Phillips $200, according to a search warrant, Farnsworth accused Phillips of stealing from her and then told Phillips that pictures had been taken of their encounter.

Phillips began making payments to Farnsworth that he told investigators reached $100,000. Farnsworth was continuing to solicit payments as recently as April 22, according to a search warrant.

Farnsworth, who goes by several aliases, including Purington, has lived in the Yorktown area, and was known in Henrico’s West End for bidding on auctioned storage sheds.

On arrest documents, she lists $100,000 in unpaid medical bills and claimed no income.

Hanover investigators would not say whether additional arrests are imminent.
Advent Christian Church off Studley Road in Hanover held their first Sunday service since the arrest of their youth pastor on embezzlement charges.

Hanover Sheriff’s deputies arrested and charged Chris Phillips with felony embezzlement last week.  Deputies said Phillips embezzled $80,000 from the church, which only has about 50 members.

On Sunday, senior pastor at Advent Christian, Heath Simpson, told CBS 6 that Phillips has been suspended from his job as youth pastor.  Simpson declined to go on camera because of the ongoing investigation.

CBS 6 News found a listing for Chris Phillips to an address in Mechanicsville that sits directly next to Advent Christian Church.  No one answered the door when CBS 6 reporter Jake Burns dropped by Sunday.  A call to the phone number listed for the address was not returned.

Pastor Simpson said he could not confirm if Phillips lives there or if the home is owned by the church.

Things were pretty normal at Sunday’s service, Simpson said.  The pastor added he is “in pray and support for Chris [Phillips] and his family.”

“We all encounter issues in life,” said Simpson, “but God’s grace is bigger than those things.

CBS 6 legal expert Todd Stone says the potential punishment for embezzlement charges is up to 20 years in prison.

“This is church money; this is money people donated with the expectation that it was going to do some good for people; and then somebody converted it for their own use.  That’s the type of thing that makes it more aggravated in a judge’s mind,” said Stone.

 A pastor at Mechanicsville Advent Christian Church who is accused of embezzling thousands of dollars from his own church is now out of jail.

Chris Phillips has been released on his own recognizance. The embezzlement charge is all part of an ongoing investigation. A Henrico woman, Tonya Farnsworth, is accused of extorting money from Phillips after he paid her for sexual favors.

Another pastor at the church would not comment if Phillips still works there. He only said, "We are praying for the Phillips family," and would not give any more details.

Phillips is supposed to lead others in their faith, but Hanover investigators say Phillips led them to arrest Farnsworth. Investigators say she extorted him out of $100,000.

But Farnsworth wasn't the only person put in handcuffs. Police also arrested Phillips - they say he embezzled more than $80,000 from his own church.

Investigators will not say where that money went.

Investigators believe Phillips and Farnsworth met at her home on West End Drive. They say this is also where he would leave her money.

According to court documents, Phillips paid Farnsworth $200 for oral sex. In that report, Phillips says "…he observed someone filming the encounter or taking photographs."

For the next three months, according to court records, Farnsworth sent Phillips text messages threatening to release the pictures unless he paid her. It says threats happened almost daily.  The affidavit says Phillips actually worked with police to get Farnsworth to confess over text message. She tells him "...never trust anyone with your fantasy."

Pastor Phillips' next court date is set for June 5. Tonya Farnsworth is schedule to be back in court on Thursday.

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