Belpre woman charged with stealing more than half a million dollars from church

A Belpre woman was booked into the Washington County Jail Thursday for the theft of more than half a million dollars from her church.

Betty Lou Wheaton, 79, of 1610 Hill St., is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing in Municipal Court on Oct. 24 on a charge of grand theft, a third-degree felony, from Bethel Lighthouse Baptist Church, located on Warren Chapel Road in Warren Township. The charge carries a possible penalty of one to three years in prison.

“She was the treasurer of this church for 41 years,” said Det. Spencer McPeek, who investigated the case for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. “But bank records only go back seven years…it was basically going through the checks she wrote to herself.”

Wheaton is accused of stealing $515,283.71 from the church. Those at the church noticed a discrepancy between what they believed they had in the account and what was actually there in July.

A recent treasurer report Wheaton had provided to the church noted a total of $146,543.78 in the church’s bank account. But when the church’s pastor, Kevin Gutberlet, and secretary Vickie Hendershot noticed an offering from July of $3,333.55, did not match the reported deposit, $2,973.80, they further reviewed records.

All that was left in their account was $51,124.86.

“The numbers weren’t matching up,” said Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Amy Graham.

In an interview with McPeek, documented in the affidavit of facts for the case, Wheaton allegedly confessed to spending multiple checks written out to cash. McPeek asked if the money was used for medical expenses or Christmas bills.

“It was just things I wanted or stuff like that,” reads the report of her interview.

Wheaton was arraigned in Marietta Municipal Court Wednesday but Graham said she expects the case to be bound over from municipal court to Washington County Common Pleas Court for a November indictment of grand theft.

“Half a million dollars is a lot of money,” she said Thursday. “The grand theft is based on the dollar amount, which at this point just accounts for the checks but when you’re dealing with money and cash offering there’s always some that you can’t account for.”

Graham said she’s not aware of how long Wheaton could have been stealing from the church.

“Our records only go back seven years,” she said. “I think she sent a lot of (the money) to her family and they didn’t know.”

According to the affidavit, the church’s practice for bookkeeping was a two-party signature on checks, but those were pre-signed by the other party and Wheaton had full control of the church’s checkbook.

Pastor Gutberlet did not return calls for comment Thursday.

At a glance:

• Betty Lou Wheaton, 79, of 1610 Hill St., Belpre, has been charged with grand theft, a third-degree felony.

• Wheaton is accused of stealing $515,283.71 from Bethel Lighthouse Baptist Church, in Warren Township, over the last seven years.

• Wheaton was booked into the Washington County Jail Thursday and released on a personal recognizance bond pending a preliminary hearing on Oct. 24.

• Wheaton is expected to be indicted by a Washington County County Jury in November.

Source: Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington County Prosecutor’s Office.

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