The former chairman of the board of a Christian Science church in Los Angeles was sentenced Monday to nearly 11 years behind bars for siphoning more than $11.4 million from the church. Along with the 130-month prison sentence, Charles Sebesta was ordered to pay the money back to the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, Los Angeles.
Sebesta, 56, pleaded guilty in February of last year to one federal count each of wire and bank fraud.
Sebesta used the money on personal expenses, including the purchase of a house and a membership to Club 33 — an exclusive Disneyland dining club, prosecutors said. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Sebesta stole a total of $11,438,213 from church assets and $34,032 from a private high school that also employed him. Prosecutors said Sebesta even looted royalties from a song whose earnings were bequeathed to the church. The song was not named in court papers.
When Sebesta pleaded guilty, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said that “the church was stripped of everything.”
Sebesta was hired in 2001 as the church’s facilities manager and began to gain the trust of administrators and members. Four years later, he joined the church and served as its local chairman, controlling the church’s financial assets and operations. From 2005 to 2016, he directed the church to make payments to fake companies’ bank accounts that he had opened, according to papers filed in Los Angeles federal court.
For at least 10 years, Sebesta falsely recorded the thefts in church records as donations, as well as environmental remediation and other payments to fictitious companies, which he named so they appeared legitimate, according to federal prosecutors. When the church sold a Hollywood Boulevard property in 2008 for more than $12 million, Sebesta took most of the proceeds for his personal use — including the purchase of a $2 million home, court papers show.
Sebesta faced sentencing enhancements for causing hardship to the fraud’s victim — the church — and using sophisticated means and abusing his position of trust.
It took the church about 15 years to unravel the scheme, which was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service, according to prosecutors.