A former church secretary was sentenced Wednesday afternoon for breaking the eighth commandment — thou shalt not steal — to a degree so great congregants fear she may have broken the church.
Alice Phillips, 47, was sentenced to nine years in the New Mexico Department of Corrections, with four years suspended, on one count of embezzlement by District Judge Fred Van Soelen.
Phillips was charged last December with 136 counts of embezzlement from St. James Episcopal Church, covering felony and misdemeanor levels and totaling $227,650.50. She will, after her five years in prison, be required to serve two years parole and four years supervised probation, plus make restitution to the church.
According to court documents, Phillips was initially confronted about the missing money by the church board in November 2015. She was responsible for paying the church’s bills, and got board members to sign blank checks in advance so she didn’t have to hunt down signatures to pay routine bills.
According to Clovis Police Det. Albert Sena’s affidavit, Phillips said she cashed a few checks to help escape some financial troubles at home, and had every intent to pay the money back. But Sena reported finding more than $80,000 deposited in bank accounts, evidence of frequent vacations and documentation to show beginnings of a retirement fund.
“The defendant acted, initially, as though she was going to come clean,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Stover said. “It was only after Det. Sena painstakingly worked through all of the notes and all of the documents we finally found out all she had been taking.
“It wasn’t a one-time thing, but rather an ongoing siphoning of money from her employer over a good amount of time.”
Kathy Wright, senior warden for the church board, said the church had acquired those monies through years of small donations, and as a result of Phillips’ actions had to ask higher-ups for permission to do minor things like pay a power bill.
“These actions have devastated our congregation,” Wright said. “We have been under severe scrutiny from the Diocese.”
Ben Herrmann, Phillips’ attorney, asked the court for a nine-year sentence, with all nine years suspended for an opportunity at restitution. He noted Phillips had no prior criminal record, and detailed a plan where Phillips, relatives and friends would pool $4,300 per month. That amount would cover Phillips’ embezzled money within five years.
“I think Mrs. Phillips has always been willing to be responsible for what she has done,” Herrmann said. “Making the community whole again would be the primary purpose. I don’t think that sending her to the Department of Corrections furthers the interest in paying the money back.”
Krystal Watson, Phillips’ oldest daughter, told Van Soelen that Phillips frequently took the money to help other people. When Van Soelen asked Watson where she thought a church secretary got all of that money, Watson said she was living out of state and mistakenly believed she was the only beneficiary of parents in a good financial place.
“She had me, my brother, my sister and others asking for help,” Watson said. “She did what she could, thinking she would get that money back. Of course, nobody helped her, including myself.”
Also testifying were Phillips’ brother, who said he would give a few hundred dollars a month, and Phillips herself.
“I’m truly, truly sorry,” Phillips said through tears. “I know what I did was wrong, and I do want to make it right. I plea with you to give me that chance.”
After about 10 minutes in his chamber to review the case, Van Soelen said he saw no way to reduce the jail time beyond the state’s plea offer, because every time she cashed a check was an opportunity to stop, and she only stopped when she got caught. He added that whether she was using the money to buy things for herself or getting a good feeling about helping friends and family out of trouble, the motivation was pure greed.
Van Soelen said he didn’t know if Phillips herself had found herself in money problems, but that she, “absolutely put the church into debt by doing this, and they’re having a hard time getting out of it.”
Churches, he continued, accept a role to help the community’s less fortunate, so the embezzlement hurt those people and the community at large.
While he conceded Phillips had little chance to pay the restitution while incarcerated, Van Soelen had no way to ensure Phillips’ multi-person plan would be adequate.
“If those other people don’t send you the restitution,” Van Soelen said, “I can’t go after them. That’s why I don’t think this is a reasonable, reality-based plan.”
Phillips’ relatives declined comment after the trial, with Watson noting there wasn’t much else to be said.