Former church treasurer sentenced for embezzlement
MARIETTA — About a dozen members of the Bethel Lighthouse Baptist Church watched as their former treasurer of 41 years was sentenced to 30 months behind bars Monday for embezzling more than half a million dollars from the house of worship.
Wheaton was also ordered to pay back all the money stolen from the church. She faced up to five years in prison for her crime.
Betty Wheaton, 80, of 1610 Hill St., Belpre, had pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony charge of aggravated theft on March 7 after admitting to stealing $515,283.71 from the coffers of the church at 5570 Warren Chapel Road. Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Amy Graham said the total is only for the last seven years, but during the investigation, Wheaton admitted to taking money since 1998. She said the true amount of money taken is unknown.
During Wheaton’s arraignment in October, prosecutors said she used pre-signed two party checks from the church made out to herself as the method to steal the money.
Kevin Gutberlet, pastor at Bethel Lighthouse, spoke to the court before the sentencing about the broken trust between Wheaton and the congregation.
“When all this came down it was quite a shock,” he said. “(Church members) were betrayed by a sister in Christ.”
Public defender Ray Smith said Wheaton was remorseful and ready to accept her sentence.
“She actually wants the court to punish her,” he said.
Smith asked for leniency for his client due to her age and lack of any criminal history. Wheaton spoke briefly to the court before sentencing as well.
“I’m sorry for what I did and I believe I found my peace with God,” she said.
Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark Kerenyi tried to find out from Wheaton where the money went.
“Are you addicted to drugs or gambling?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
“Then where is the money?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Before sentencing, Kerenyi made note that even though she didn’t have any significant prior convictions, she was still a career criminal with a 20-year history of theft due to this case. Kerenyi sentenced Wheaton to 30 months in prison for the crime.
Robert Lane, a member of Bethel Lighthouse, said he felt the sentence was too light and sets a bad example for the younger generation.
“What’s the message that this gives them?” he asked.
He said getting just over two years for stealing that amount of money wasn’t enough deterrent for people who potentially would commit a similar crime.
“This isn’t justice,” he said.