LOS ANGELES – The former chairman of the board of the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, of Los Angeles was sentenced today 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 financial assets and operations, including some of its bank accounts.
From at least August 2006 through December 2016, Sebesta caused the church to make checks and other payments to banks accounts in the name of fictitious companies he created, as well as to bank accounts he held in his own name and in the names of his family members and a female companion. To further conceal these payments, Sebesta forged a church member’s signature on numerous checks drawn against the church’s bank accounts.
In the fall of 2008, Sebesta oversaw the sale of church property in Hollywood for approximately $12.8 million. Sebesta stole a significant 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. The checks were falsely recorded in church records as “donations” and environmental remediation payments to a fictitious “Sky Blue Environmental” company.
In 2009 and 2010, Sebesta used church money to wire $1.86 million and $309,622 to be credited to his own personal tax accounts to generate overpayment refunds from the U.S. Treasury and the California Franchise Tax Board, respectively.
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 sent emails to church members in which he fraudulently represented that the real estate developer held Sebesta in high esteem and was making donations to the church and paying the rent for the church’s new location.
In total, Sebesta stole at least $11,438,213 of 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] stole $11,438,213 and destroyed a venerable church, its congregation, and the faith its congregants had in one another by employing sophisticated means to abuse his position of trust and cause the Church not only substantial, but ruinous, financial hardship.”
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.
The United States Secret Service investigated this matter.
Assistant United States Attorneys Adam P. Schleifer and Valerie L. Makarewicz of the Major Frauds Section prosecuted this case.