COLUMBIA — When Sandra Stroupe stole more than $600,000 from the Clover Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, she took money that would have gone to an orphanage in Malawi, a paralyzed car accident victim, and a blind woman in her 90s, according to a letter from church elders read in federal court on Friday morning.
Stroupe, 67, was sentenced to serve 24 months in prison and ordered to pay the church more than $610,000 in restitution. She pleaded guilty to mail fraud in March.
When sentencing Stroupe, Judge Margaret B. Seymour said she felt a 24-month sentence would be enough to punish Stroupe and deter others who may be considering committing a crime when they are in a position of trust. Stroupe stole the funds between 2006 and 2013, when she was the church’s secretary and bookkeeper, positions she’d held for 38 years.
Stroupe’s lawyer, John Barton, had argued in a court document and during the hearing that probation and restitution would be enough punishment, given Stroupe’s age, lack of criminal background, Clover ARP’s desire to have restitution paid as soon as possible, and Stroupe’s desire to pay back the money.
“Does it make practical sense and common sense to put a 67-year-old grandmother of four in prison?” Barton said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney, Jim May, who prosecuted the case, said probation and restitution alone were not enough.
“Just simply allowing her to pay back the money” would not deter her or others, he said.
During the hearing, Clover ARP church elder Jim Young read a letter on behalf of the other elders. Stroupe did not just commit a crime against Clover ARP, Young said, but against the “Lord Jesus Christ and his church.”
“The Clover ARP is not the only victim,” he said, because the funds Stroupe stole to supplement her income and pay off enormous debt were designated for different ministries and charities.
More than $19,000 of the stolen money was intended to go to an orphanage in Malawi. An additional $2,500 was for a church member who was paralyzed in a car accident, and $22,000 for a blind church member in her 90s. Tens of thousands more were for foreign ministries, a bible study program and the Associated Reform Presbyterian ministry fund, among others.
The largest amount Young listed was nearly $250,000 intended for the church’s building fund, the majority of which was collected through memorial donations. The theft has delayed the church’s ability to expand and improve its facilities.
“Our desire as the aggrieved party is to have full restitution,” Young said.
Stroupe stole the funds by altering checks written to the church and from one church account to another, according to court documents. She then deposited the money into the Women’s Society account, the only account for which she had authority to write checks or withdraw money. She then withdrew the funds for her own use, which included “exorbitant interest expenses” incurred on credit cards, supplementing her income and on modest gifts for her family.
Barton argued that Stroupe would be willing to give her full monthly Social Security check of $702 to the church in restitution if she didn’t go to prison. She and her husband of 50 years, Don Stroupe, who sat behind his wife in court, were willing to do whatever they could to pay back the money, Barton said.
Yet, since she was indicted in April 2013, Stroupe hasn’t paid the church “a dime,” May said.
Barton blamed the ongoing bankruptcy for that. The Stroupes filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy during the last year. Aside from what Sandra Stroupe owes Clover ARP, they have been absolved of all other debt.
When Barton told the judge that the Stroupes didn’t have any significant assets, Seymour inquired about more than $9,000 in the Stroupe’s checking account, $4,000 in household goods, and a $2,000 gun collection listed in court records.
“Someone needs to give up these assets,” she said.
Seymour gave the gun collection and the paralyzed car accident victim as an example, saying the value of the gun collection would almost restore the victim’s funding.
“Every little bit helps,” she said.
In reply, Barton assured the judge the Stroupes would sell everything they have to make things right by Clover ARP.
In addition to her husband, Stroupe was joined in court by her brother and sister-in-law. Her two children and four grandchildren were urged not to come because of the emotional nature of the proceedings, Barton said.
On the other side of the aisle, Jim Young, the church elder, was joined by several other members from Clover ARP and Eric Ruschky, a former assistant U.S. attorney and elder with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He called Stroupe’s prison sentence “unfortunate,” given her age, but said a harsh punishment was needed to deter her and others from stealing from the church.
“The church is in a tough position,” Ruschky said after the sentencing. “They don’t want to be looked at as unforgiving.”
During the hearing, Barton said that the pastor at Clover ARP had asked to go to lunch with Stroupe after her indictment. When she agreed, the pastor told her that the only way she would achieve salvation was through making full restitution. When he read the church elders’ letter, Young said that the pastor was showing Stroupe “tough Christian love.”
The letter also cited passages from Luke, Leviticus and Exodus that say paying restitution is the only way to atone for theft.
During the hearing, Stroupe attempted to read a letter she had written to the court, but only got a few words in before breaking down in tears and quickly sitting down. Barton read the letter on her behalf.
In the letter, she asked for forgiveness and apologized for her actions and for betraying the trust given to her by church members and officials. Stroupe “lost many treasured friends” because of this incident. Stroupe, previously a lifelong member, no longer attends Clover ARP.
“My criminal acts will be a burden for the rest of my life,” the letter said.
Following the hearing, both Barton and the Clover ARP members declined to comment.
In addition to the 24 months in prison, Seymour sentenced Stroupe to three years of supervised release and a mandatory credit counseling course. She will not be allowed to open any credit cards or accounts without permission from the U.S. Probation Office, and her financial information must be made available to that office.
Within 30 days of release from custody, Stroupe must begin paying Clover ARP at least $500 each month in restitution.
Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-4072