FRESNO, Calif. -- A woman who hosted formal tea parties for the women of Visalia First Assembly of God church was arrested Thursday on suspicion of embezzling more than $2 million from the church, where she worked as the accounting manager for 13 years.
Sandra Arreola, 51, who moved to Palm Desert, Calif., last year, turned herself in Thursday morning to police in Visalia, Calif. She was charged with embezzlement, money-laundering and a white-collar crime enhancement. Her arrest came after an 18-month investigation.
Arreola is being held on $1 million bail. Her arraignment is scheduled for Friday afternoon.
From 2003 to early 2009, Detective Kevin Kroeze said, Arreola swiped $2.1 million from collection plates, averaging nearly $7,000 a weekend. Police said she used the money to buy businesses and property -- including a place on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The losses went unnoticed for years because the church, one of the largest in the city, failed to conduct regular and thorough audits, police said.
Pastor Mike Robertson said at a news conference Thursday that he ordered an internal audit after joining the church staff in February 2008. Irregularities prompted the church to hire a Los Angeles-based certified public accounting firm that specializes in auditing large churches.
Arreola "became uncooperative with the auditors and then resigned her position in 2009 before the audit was complete," Robertson said.
Police were notified in July 2009.
New procedures -- including installing security cameras -- have been put into place since to prevent fraud, the pastor said.
Church officials told members last year that money was missing.
Money might have been taken prior to 2003, but the audit only covered 2003 to 2009, Robertson said.
"My initial reaction was of sadness," he said. "How could anyone who attends our church do something like that?"
Those who know Arreola from church said they liked her.
Arreola was "always willing to help" and "a lovely hostess," said church member Becky Maze.
"One of the things she was well-known for was liking to have a tea for the women, and making the little cookies and desserts -- the froufrou kind of things," Maze said.
Arreola's Facebook page shows a drawing of a teapot pouring tea into a cup.
Another church member who asked not to be identified described Arreola as "loving" and caring."
The motive for the alleged embezzlement is unknown, police said.
"There's no drug use, no gambling" as far as officers know, Kroeze said.
But the money is now gone, he said, spent on the businesses and the properties, which are all in foreclosure.
An insurance policy covered $500,000 of the loss, the pastor said.
Arreola has cooperated with police, Kroeze said.
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Visalia First Assembly kept good records but had not done a thorough audit in several years, he said.
The church draws about 3,500 congregants each weekend, with three services on Sunday and one on Saturday. Its annual budget is $5 million.
The number of churches victimized by fraud appears to have increased in recent years, said Phill Martin, deputy director of the National Association of Church Business Administration in Richardson, Texas.
"People who get started in this, they never mean to do this," Martin said. Often they get behind on mortgage payments or medical bills and "borrow" the money with the intent of paying it back the next month -- then it spins out of control, he said.
Pastor Brian Malison of Christ Lutheran Church in Visalia said 85 percent to 90 percent of a church's revenue comes from the offering plate. Churches should conduct an internal audit yearly and arrange for an outside audit every three to four years, he said.
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