Bookkeeper pleads guilty to stealing from church
Published 12:10 am Tuesday, March 31, 2015
A Carter County man pleaded guilty in Criminal Court on Monday to charges he embezzled nearly $130,000 from the church where he volunteered as the bookkeeper. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail plus probation.
Silas Edward “Eddie” Sams, 68, 390 H. Heaton Road, entered a guilty plea before Judge Stacy Street to one count of theft over $60,000, one count of theft over $1,000 and eight counts of forgery. All charges were connected to money he admittedly stole from Beck Mountain Baptist Church while working as their bookkeeper. The thefts occurred between September 2006 and July 2013.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Sams could have faced eight years in prison, but Street granted him alternative sentencing. Instead of the prison time, Street ordered Sams to spend 90 days in the Carter County Jail and serve 10 years on state probation. If Sams fails to complete probation or violates any court instructions, Street could order him to serve the eight years in prison.
Among the conditions set by the court, Sams must pay back all the money he took from the church, which totaled to $129,111.96. Street set Sams’ restitution payments at $250 each month, adding Sams can pay more if he is able but must pay at least that amount each month. In order to get off probation, Sams must pay back the full amount in restitution, Street said.
Because Sams draws Social Security, Street split up his 90 days in jail. Under federal law, if a person is incarcerated for more than 30 consecutive days, they lose their SSI and must apply to have it reinstated. Because Sams will need that income to be able to begin paying on his restitution, Street said he would split the sentence into three segments of 30 days each. Sams will report on Monday to serve his first 30 days. He will begin the second phase of his sentence on June 6 and the third on Aug. 6.
After Sams entered his guilty plea Monday, the court held a hearing to determine whether Sams was eligible for the alternative sentencing.
As part of the hearing, several people spoke for the prosecution and the defense about Sams’ character, the events at the church and how Sams has behaved since the embezzlement was discovered.
Bob Phillips is a member of Beck Mountain Baptist Church and was one of the people who first uncovered something was wrong with the church’s finances. In 2013 the lower level of the church sustained flood damage due to a drainage issue at the property. Phillips was one of the members of a church-appointed committee tasked with securing a loan to make repairs to the church.
When the committee went to speak with the bank, Phillips said they requested to see copies of the church’s financial statements as part of the loan process and that is when the discrepancies first began coming to light.
When Sams was questioned by the committee, he said he’d had made a mistake, Phillips said.
“I just thought it was poor hillbilly bookkeeping,” Phillips said. “I never in my mind thought it would be theft.”
But evidence began piling up as the committee learned Sams had written several checks to himself.
Even after the church committee began looking into the financial discrepancies, Sams continued to write checks to himself, Phillips said.
“He knew we were investigating missing funds and he was still doing it,” Phillips said. “He showed no remorse.”
When the committee asked Sams about the checks he wrote to himself, Sams went to the Sheriff’s Department and reported he had taken money from the church.
“He went to the sheriff’s department and tried to say he’d gotten a few thousand dollars,” Phillips said, adding Sams said the thefts began in 2010. It was later determined the thefts began in 2006 and amounted to nearly $130,000.
A divide began forming in the church, Phillips said. Some members felt the church should handle the matter internally without involving the police while others though the police needed to be in charge of the investigation.
“This case was too large for the church to decide what happens to Mr. Sams,” Phillips said. “A crime is a crime. My Lord and Savior asked me to forgive Mr. Sams and with my belief in God I forgive him, but Mr. Sams committed a horrible crime.”
God’s forgiveness was a common theme among those who testified during the hearing. Several of those who testified quoted Scripture on forgiveness and passing judgement on others.
“Temptation is something we all face as Christians,” said church member Betty Johnson. “The devil caught Eddie at his weakest moment.”
The matter should have been settled by the church “among Christians,” rather than involving the sheriff’s department, Johnson said.
She then shared the Bible story from John 8:7 of when Jesus stopped the crowd from stoning the woman who had been caught in adultery, telling the crowd that “let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Johnson stood up from the witness stand and looked around the courtroom. “Who among you can cast the first stone?” she asked.
Sams wife Janis Sams also took the stand during the hearing. She cried as she told the story of the night when the church brought the evidence against him and accused him of stealing the money. After they got home from church, Jane Sams said her husband left the house.
“He went to kill himself,” she said, adding some friends and church members were able to talk him out of it and get him to return home.
Janis Sams told the court her husband is “broken hearted” over what he did and he has shown remorse every day since.
“So many times I have walked in and found him with his head in his hands crying,” she said. “Every waking minute, he lives with it.”
“I’m glad Eddie was caught,” she added. “Eddie was an addict to what he was doing. He was in debt with credit cards.”
At the end of the hearing, Eddie Sams took the stand to give his testimony. He also shared the story of the night he decided to take his own life, saying that he heard God’s voice speak to him and that is what stopped him.
He also spoke about his reason for taking the money.
“I was a credit card addict,” he said. “I probably had 15 to 20 of them.”
Finding himself unable to stop buying things, Eddie Sams said he began using one credit card to make a payment on another. When that stopped working, he began taking money. “Satan found a crack to get in,” he said.
“I thank God I got caught,” he said, adding he had prayed for God to stop him from stealing the money and lying to the church.
Since being caught, Eddie Sams said he began attending Christian counseling for addiction and has not touched a credit card in 18 months.
At the conclusion of testimony, Street said while some of Sams actions and history would qualify him for complete alternative sentencing, the severity of the crime and the way it was committed did not justify allowing Sams to escape all jail time.
““This is a tremendous amount of money,” Street said, adding Eddie Sams held a position of trust in service to the church. “He violated the trust of the church.”
Street also addressed a comment Eddie Sams made during his testimony.
“You said the Devil found a crack. That may be true, but he found it many, many times over a long period of time,” Street said. “If you hadn’t been caught you would still be doing this today in my opinion.”