The long-time treasurer of a rural Missouri Baptist church is suspected of skimming funds that were designated for cooperative missions and the pastor’s retirement fund in a series of alleged thefts that authorities say add up to more than $300,000.
Donald Ray White, 68, of Hannibal, Mo., was arrested March 9 on felony charges of wire fraud. A federal indictment dated March 8 alleges that the church deacon embezzled approximately $320,888 from Antioch Baptist Church near Hannibal while serving as treasurer from 1994 through 2016.
Ralls County Sheriff Gerry Dinwiddie said an extensive investigation began after a mid-day fire destroyed Antioch Baptist Church’s building on Dec. 20, 2016. The cause of the fire was undetermined, but church leaders reportedly were already looking into alleged discrepancies in the church’s books.
David Pelletier, a member of the church’s finance committee and a retired administrator at Hannibal-LaGrange University, told The Pathway denominational newspaper that funds supposedly sent to the Missouri Baptist Convention did not match up with receipts reported by the state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention.
A study by the finance committee said treasurer reports submitted to the church showed appropriate amounts forwarded to the Cooperative Program unified budget and to offerings like Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. Giving reports by the Missouri Baptist Convention, meanwhile, showed contributions from the congregation dropping significantly and some years to zero.
Based on their investigation, church leaders say they believe White stole checks averaging $25,000 or more each year. They also suspect cash went missing, because deposit slips rarely showed bills or coins. The pastor’s retirement fund reportedly went unpaid for 23 years.
Going back through the uninvestigated 12 years, the church estimates the embezzlement total at more than $750,000.
The indictment alleges that White wrote checks from the church’s bank account, without permission from the church or finance committee, for his personal benefit. Because wire transfers involve interstate commerce, the FBI got involved. If convicted, White could forfeit ill-gotten gain including his home.
The arrest renewed interest in 2016 fire. Investigators found no indication of arson but also did not rule it out. Ultimately, the state fire marshal closed the investigation determining the cause of the fire unknown.
“I would love to know what the cause was,” Hannibal Rural Fire Protection District chief Mike Marshall told the Hannibal Courier-Post. “I’m sure the pastor and parishioners would, but I think the likelihood of that happening, even if we dug it out, was slim to none because of the extent of the damage.”
Antioch Baptist Church broke ground on a new building last October. Pastor Jack Emmite told the local newspaper the new building will be three times larger than the old one, built in the 1940s. The church was founded in 1870.
In the meantime, the congregation is meeting on Sundays at the Seventh-day Adventist Church and in homes during the week.
White was taken to jail in St. Louis and released on $10,000 bond.