'She left them literally penniless'

A Shady Cove church that nearly crumbled after the theft of $26,000 will benefit from a fine levied Monday against its former bookkeeper, who also was jailed.

Michelle Ann Ellis, 53, of Trail, pleaded guilty Monday in Jackson County Circuit Court to a dozen felony counts, including racketeering, aggravated theft and forgery. Circuit Court Judge Ron Grensky ordered Ellis to serve three months in jail for her two-year pattern of theft against Koinonia Christian Fellowship and Shady Cove Muffler & Brake while operating a business called M & M Bookkeeping.

"It was a trap," said David Orr, county deputy district attorney, of the newspaper advertisement Ellis took out for her business.

"She left them literally penniless."

Julie Roden, 53, and her 54-year-old husband, Lou, answered Ellis' ad and employed her to keep the books for their auto-repair shop. While attending Koinonia in July 2003, Julie Roden referred Ellis' services to pastor Scott O'Neal, who also operates a Christian counseling practice.

Ellis forged business checks between March 2004 and December 2005, often duplicating the amounts needed to cover church bills. She used her clients' credit cards to cover her tracks, stealing a total of $51,000 in funds. Ellis specifically admitted Monday to stealing more than $1,000 in tithing donations from Koinonia — then in its first year — which O'Neal said did irreparable damage to his standing with church members.

"The tithing went down," the pastor told Grensky.

"People stopped trusting in the whole system," adding that some donations came from widows on fixed incomes.

Although Ellis has made full restitution in both cases, Grensky ordered her to pay Koinonia an additional $1,200 at Orr's request.

"They kind of wonder if he's involved," Orr told the judge. "There's no amount of money Michelle Ellis can ever pay to change Dr. O'Neal's reputation."

Ellis, Orr said, also tried to make life difficult for Roden and O'Neal after they heard Ellis had confessed the theft to a friend. Ellis transferred ownership of her Elk Creek Road home to her domestic partner and, when O'Neal sued for damages, she countersued for lost wages.

"She didn't deserve those wages," Orr told Grensky.

Ellis said she had no idea she stole so much money but really hadn't taken as much as she paid back. When Grensky pressed her to explain why she committed the crime, she said she was attempting to cover debts she had kept hidden from her partner.

"I was hurting also," Ellis said.

When Ellis apologized for the crime, Grensky instructed her to apologize to the victims, sitting in benches behind her.

"I have told you people that I am sorry," she said. "I've been sorry for a long time."

Grensky cited the leniency of Ellis' sentence for his decision to send her jail immediately after the hearing. The district attorney's office agreed to a jail term rather than face the prospect that Ellis might dodge a prison sentence, given that she had no previous criminal record, Orr said.

Under the negotiated terms, Ellis won't be eligible for transfer to the county's work center until she serves a month in the main jail, Grensky ruled. She is not eligible for early release or home detention.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487.

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