Florida church employee pleads guilty to defrauding parish of $775,000

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A former employee at a Florida Catholic church has pleaded guilty to stealing more than three-quarters of a million dollars from the parish while employed there.

Court filings obtained by CNA show that Heather Darrey defrauded Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa of $775,000 while serving as the parish’s records and finance manager. 

As part of her duties, Darrey would “generate printed bank checks” payable to the parish’s vendors, the filings say. 

After parish officials signed those checks, she “destroyed the authorized printed bank checks” and “prepared new handwritten bank checks in the same amounts as the legitimate ones but made payable to her personal accounts and creditors.”

She would then input fraudulent data into the church’s records “to make it appear that she had mailed the printed bank checks,” the plea deal said.

An audit of the parish’s finances ultimately revealed a “loss amount of $775,196.90 in funds stolen by Darrey.” The thefts took place from around October 2023 to March of this year.

Prior to the audit, Darrey had originally admitted to stealing a smaller amount of money from the parish; she reportedly begged the church to “not contact the authorities and press charges.”

The stolen money went toward “expensive purchases of concert and show tickets, luxury goods, payments to her home mortgage, and other purchases for herself and others,” prosecutors said. 

The plea deal carries with it “a maximum sentence of 20 years of imprisonment” as well as a maximum $250,000 fine and “a term of supervised release of not more than three years.”

Darrey was also ordered to make restitution of the $775,000 to the Tampa parish as well as “any other victim as determined by the court.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, which prosecuted the case, declined to comment on the plea deal. The Diocese of St. Petersburg, in which the Tampa parish resides, also declined to comment. 

In a statement to CNA last week before the finalization of the plea deal, the diocese said the parish had been “the victim of a complex financial crime” and that “no parishioner’s personal financial information was compromised while this criminal activity took place.”

“We are praying for healing, especially for this former employee’s family as they try to come to terms with all of this,” the diocese said at the time.

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