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Ex-chair of LA Christian Science church sentenced to 11 years for stealing $11M from congregation

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Unsplash/Bill Oxford

The former board chair of a Christian Science church in California has been sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for stealing $11.4 million from his Los Angeles congregation.

From around August 2006 to December 2016, 56-year-old Charles Thomas Sebesta of Huntington Beach served as board chairman of Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist in Los Angeles, overseeing the finances and budget decisions.

Over the course of 10 years, Sebesta is accused of conducting a series of strategically planned embezzlement crimes in which he stole equity from the church’s assets. 

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Central District of California, Sebesta is responsible for the church making checks and other payments to bank accounts in the name of fabricated companies he created, bank accounts in his name, names of family members and a female companion. 

To further conceal these payments, Sebesta forged a church member’s signature on numerous checks drawn against the church’s bank accounts.

Sebesta is alleged to have used the proceeds for personal gain, including purchasing a home with more than $2 million in cashier’s checks from church bank accounts. The checks were made to a fake company called Sky Blue Environmental and falsely recorded in church records as donations and environmental remediation payments.

The total amount Sebesta is reported to have stolen from the church made up of elderly members was at least $11,438,213 of church assets.

“[Sebesta] began a 10-year spree in which he treated the Church and its considerable assets as his own personal piggy bank,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “[Sebesta] destroyed a venerable church, its congregation, and the faith its congregants had in one another by employing sophisticated means to abuse his position of trust and cause the Church not only substantial, but ruinous, financial hardship.”

Sebesta pleaded guilty in February 2020 to one count of wire fraud and one count of bank fraud. He has been in federal custody since his August 2019 arrest.

Sebesta was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson. He is ordered to pay $11,438,213 in restitution. 

Sebesta was initially hired as a facilities manager for the church in 2001. Four years later, he joined the church and was named board chairman. He was trusted with the church's assets and operations. The new role gave him access to some of the church's bank accounts. 

According to prosecutors, Sebesta oversaw the sale of the church property in 2008 for about $12.8 million and stole a significant majority of the proceeds for his personal use. 

In the next two years following the purchase of Sebesta's home, Sebesta reportedly wired $1.86 million and $309,622 to be credited to his personal tax accounts. Prosecutors say this was done to generate overpayment refunds from the U.S. Treasury and the California Franchise Tax Board.

Sebesta also is accused of impersonating a real estate developer by creating an email account in the executive's name and posing as the developer. 

Prosecutors contend that Sebesta “sent emails to church members in which he fraudulently represented that the real estate developer held Sebesta in high esteem and was making donations to the church and paying the rent for the church’s new location.”

The U.S. Attorney's Office also reports that Sebesta defrauded another former employer. He is accused of stealing about $34,000 from a private high school in Los Angeles County. He is also said to have embezzled over $36,000 a donor's estate had donated to the church. 

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