A Southern Baptist church treasurer in Missouri has been arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury after it was alleged that he stole between $300,000 to $750,000 from his congregation, which suffered the loss of its church building in a "suspicious" December 2016 fire.
The Ralls County Sheriff's Office said Friday that 68-year-old Donald White was arrested and transported to St. Louis by FBI after he was charged with two counts wire fraud in connection to the theft of thousands of dollars from the Antioch Baptist Church in Hannibal.
Because White's case involved wire fraud across state lines, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Missouri State Fire Marshal's Office assisted the sheriff's office in conducting an investigation that led to White's arrest.
"The extensive investigation was initiated after the suspicious fire which destroyed the Antioch Baptist Church on Dec. 20, 2016," the sheriff's office explained in a statement. "White, who was an elder and longtime treasurer of the church, was suspected by other parishioners of being involved with the large-scale theft of church funds just prior to the fire."
White served as the elected treasurer of the congregation from 1994 until 2016, where he was not entitled to any payment or salary for his services but had access to the church's checkbook and bank statements.
According to the federal indictment, White devised a scheme in which he "embezzled approximately $320,888 from Antioch Baptist Church of Hannibal, for his personal benefit, and the benefit of others, during the relevant timeframe."
David Pelletier, a member of the church's Finance and Budget Committee, created in wake of the scandal, wrote in a report that White could have embezzled upward of $750,000 from the church in over 23 years. However, the FBI investigation only traced back 11 years.
Pelletier's report, which was highlighted by the bi-weekly publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention, explained that a church investigation of bank statements from the previous five years found evidence of fraudulent check writing that averaged about $25,000 or more each year.
It wasn't until March 2016 that other church members began investigating alleged discrepancies when it comes to the church's finances.
Pelletier states that funds that were supposedly sent to the MBC's Cooperative Program did not match the amounts listed in annual giving reports published by the MBC.
Additionally, funds that were supposed to go toward mission offerings and pastor's retirement payments were unpaid.
According to The Pathway, church records show that in the year White was elected as treasurer, "submitted missionary funds dropped from a few thousand to a few hundred dollars some years, and with several years showing zero funds submitted."
Meanwhile, White's treasurer reports submitted to the church showed appropriate amounts being paid to the Cooperative Program and other offering programs.
"You think that you know someone and when you find these things out, it's a deep hurt," Pastor Jack Emmite told WGEM. "'Vengeance is mine,' [says] the Lord, not ours. So we'll leave it to God and those who are working on the whole thing.
It wasn't until October 2016 that White was confronted about the situation. It was on Dec. 20 of that year that the church building was destroyed in a fire in which the cause was "undetermined."
"It's hard to say if there is any relation to that," Sheriff Gerry Dinwiddie told WGEM when asked if it's possible that White had any connection to the fire. "You're talking about a coincidence but there's a lot that can happen as a coincidence here. We're just going off of the forensic facts that we have and not trying to speculate anything."
Having lost their church building, the community still worships together at different homes every week for Bible study, prayer and fellowship, Emmite told the Hannibal Courier-Post.
Construction crews are set to begin construction on the new Antioch Baptist Church building. Emmite told the Hannibal Courier-Post that the foundation could be done by May.
The new building will be roughly three times the size of the old building.
"The Lord's going to take a disaster, and he's going to turn it around and use it to His glory," Emmite said. "We just want to be a part of what God's doing. We want to listen."