The former chairman of the board of the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist in Los Angeles was sentenced on Aug. 30 to 130 months in federal prison for stealing more than $11 million in church funds.
Charles Thomas Sebesta, 56, of Huntington Beach, was sentenced by United States District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, who also ordered him to pay $11,438,213 in restitution. Sebesta pleaded guilty in February 2020 to one count of wire fraud and one count of bank fraud. He has been in federal custody since his arrest in August 2019.
The church hired Sebesta in 2001 as its facilities manager. He joined the church four years later and ultimately served as its chairman, giving him control over the church branch’s operations and financial assets, including some of its bank accounts.
From August 2006 through December 2016, Sebesta issued checks and made other payments from the church to bank accounts in the name of fictitious companies he created, as well as to bank accounts in his name and his family members’ names, and the name of a female companion. To further conceal the payments, Sebesta forged a church member’s signature on numerous checks, federal authorities said.
In fall 2008, Sebesta oversaw the sale of church property in Hollywood for approximately $12.8 million. Sebesta stole a majority of the proceeds for his personal use, including purchasing a home with more than $2 million in cashier’s checks drawn from church bank accounts, authorities added.
The checks were falsely recorded in church records as donations and environmental remediation payments to a fictitious company.
To conceal his crimes, Sebesta impersonated a real estate developer by creating an email account in the executive’s name. Posing as the developer, Sebesta emailed church members and fraudulently told them he was making donations and paying rent for the church’s new location. In total, Sebesta stole at least $11.4 million in church assets.
“Having wrested operational and financial control of the church from its elderly members by 2006, [Sebesta] began a 10-year spree in which he treated the church and its considerable assets as his own personal piggy bank,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Sebesta also defrauded another former employer – a private high school in Los Angeles County – out of $34,032, and embezzled $36,282 that a donor’s estate had donated to the church.