MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (ABP) – A 70-year-old widow who stole $1.5 million as financial secretary of a Baptist church was sentenced Sept. 1 to 44 months in prison.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Barbara Whitt, who pleaded guilty in February to bank fraud and money laundering, could have served as little as 41 months or as long as 51 months. According to media reports, U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan refused to give the minimum sentence to send a message to the public.
According to her indictment, Whitt stole money from First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., for nearly three years before a church audit discovered $500,000 missing in May 2010. Prosecutors said she wrote 1,647 checks to herself that she cashed at a nearby bank on her lunch hour.
Her lawyer claimed in a sentencing memorandum that her 40-year-old son and only living close relative, Michael Dean Whitt, manipulated her by telling her he needed money to pay the IRS for his business or he would be sent to prison. He then spent the money on things like motor vehicles, a boat, consumer electronics and drugs.
U.S. District Attorney William Killian said Whitt kept the books for her son's company and would have known that the money wasn’t being used for legitimate business expenses.
Whitt was financial secretary at First Baptist Church from 1964 until 2010, but a member of a different church. According to local media, her pastor, Todd Stinnett of Grace Baptist Church, testified that she had apologized and taken responsibility for her actions.
Dean Haun, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, said he and his 2.500-member congregation have forgiven her despite “the hurt, disappointment and shock of her actions.”
According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Judge Jordan told her she is fortunate to have so much support, love and forgiveness, but that “We must send a message to the public."
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.