Sunday, February 2, 2014

Defendant in church theft case skips court

A Hopewell woman accused of stealing upwards of $500,000 from Chester United Methodist Church will not have her day in court quite yet.

Jerri Hunter, 39, was scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 16, but when her case was called before Judge Steven McCallum at Chesterfield County Circuit Court, her defense attorney Russell Bowles said she was not going to appear.

Hunter’s attorney explained to the court that he received what he called a “desperate” phone call that morning. Hunter was on her way to Southside Regional Medical Center with a medical emergency.

Hunter was arrested on July 29 in Suffolk. Local authorities said she stole the money over the course of several years while she was employed as the church’s financial administrator.

Hunter was charged with 14 felony counts of embezzlement. Further investigation into the stolen funds revealed Hunter had been stealing the money over a period of several years. According to court documents, Hunter stole funds at least once a month from July 12, 2012, to May 17, 2013.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Fierro Jr. expressed his doubt after Bowles said his client was not going to appear. Fierro said he questioned whether or not Hunter was being truthful and was especially skeptic given the seriousness of the crime.

“I do have concerns,” Fierro said. “She stole an awful lot of money, and with the latest developments, I don’t know what to make of it.”

Fierro continued, noting Hunter had previous convictions out of Oklahoma and upon further examination of the evidence from the case, the money that was stolen “had ties outside this community” and some of the funds were taken outside of the state.

Though doubts were made known, Bowles assured the court Hunter had no reason to lie about her medical state to evade from appearing in court. He said Hunter had planned to enter a guilty plea to the charges before her on that day.

“There really wasn’t a reason for her to be afraid,” Bowles said, also telling the court she is on medication for anxiety. “... I just don’t think this is a ruse.”

Judge McCallum said a new date will have to be set for Hunter. He also ruled that a show cause had to be issued for her failure to appear before the court that afternoon. McCallum also told Bowles he would need to see medical proof that Hunter was in fact in the hospital at the time of her scheduled court date.

Hunter’s trial date was re-set for March.

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