Kotschevar sentenced to jail, probation for church embezzlement

CENTREVILLE — The now-former Centreville village treasurer left St. Joseph County Circuit Court Friday in handcuffs.

Carol Kotschevar was sentenced by Circuit Court Judge Paul Stutesman to three months in jail and two years of probation on one count of embezzlement between $1,000 and $20,000 for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Centreville and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Colon over the course of a four-year period while she was the Centreville church’s treasurer.

Kotschevar will also have to pay restitution of $37,805.28 to the Centreville church, $15,754.55 to the Colon church, $2,500 to Brotherhood Mutual, and $15,000 to Auto Owners Insurance.

The 60-year-old Kotschevar pleaded no contest to the charge back in October, and did not speak to the court during Friday’s proceedings. She was originally charged with two counts of embezzlement over $20,000 and less than $50,000, one count for each church, but the charge was reduced because of a plea deal.

According to Prosecutor David Marvin, Kotschevar was terminated as Centreville village treasurer Friday.

Kurt Richardson, Kotschevar’s attorney, said during proceedings that his client has “shown responsibility” as well as “remorse” for her actions, and asked the court to follow sentencing recommendations, which did not involve jail time.

Marvin said the case was a “matter of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“She chose to be trusted in two different communities,” Marvin said. “She won trust in an important position and did not honor that trust.”

Victim impact statements were read from one member of each church. Tom Smith, the president of the Colon church’s congregation, said Kotschevar’s actions “financially devastated” the church in a number of ways, including impacting their missionary work.

“She is a bad example of trust,” Smith said, adding Kotschevar “has failed to show remorse over the entire period of this investigation and case, always blaming someone besides yourself.”

Smith also said early on, Kotschevar said she was “above reproach” and “knew how to fix an audit,” the latter a phrase found in a police affidavit of the incident. He asked the court to impose consequences on the former church treasurer.

“The court may refer to her as a first-time offender, but in fact she is a habitual offender,” Smith said, adding he hoped there was a “hasty” repayment. “We need to impose consequences on this. If we don’t, we’ll be back here again with the same crime, but with a different person.”

Mary Craaybeek, a member of the Centreville church, had pointed words for Kotschevar, repeatedly calling her a “liar, conniver, manipulator and deceiver” in her victim impact statement.

“You nearly brought our church family to our knees, in a negative connotation,” Craaybeek said. “While we paid you as our accounts manager, our church always seemed to be just barely able to pay bills, just squeaking by, always pretty well broke.”

Craaybeek said once Kotschevar was gone from their congregation, the church’s bills could be paid “with ease,” and their balance grew by “thousands of dollars,” including increased missionary giving. She added that Kotschevar “presumed [she] could handily get away” with her actions, but also “presumed upon Jesus” as well.

“Jesus, our victorious risen Lord, is whom you presumed upon with your traits as a liar, conniver, manipulator and deceiver,” Craaybeek said. “But your devious character was exposed naked, because we read in the New Testament in Hebrews that no creature is hidden from God’s sight, and to Him each must give an account.”

Craaybeek finished by saying there were some in the congregation felt that jail would be a “benefit” to Kotschevar, and that some said she should be in jail “at least a year” to “unlearn what appeared as an ingrained habit.”

“I describe time in jail as a benefit because most all of us at St. Paul’s feel not any vindictiveness toward you. We instead view a period of incarceration as an opportunity for you,” Craaybeek said. “While in jail, you will have time to read your Bible, to learn God’s will for you, and to come to a sincere repentance.”

Following the impact statements, Marvin said objectively, there was “not a single felony or two,” but rather multiple felonies, pointing out a few separate transfers of more than $1,000 Kotschevar made, including the $11,000 to a venue in Grand Rapids for her daughter’s wedding. He said the situation has caused “trouble” in both churches, with “two camps” in church – one that thinks Kotschevar didn’t do it, and one that thinks the opposite.

Marvin added that he didn’t think the sentencing recommendation, which didn’t include jail time, was correct, saying there needed to be punishment and a jail component to the sentence.

“This wasn’t a clerk at a big box store, this was someone in a trusted position in a sacred community,” Marvin said.

According to an affidavit from the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department, in the course of four years between December 2015 and December 2019, approximately $39,605.28 in cash was misappropriated by Kotschevar from St. Paul’s in Centreville, including $31,500 in e-payments made from the Colon church’s account. The charges and payments included a $1,759.84 charge for the Hilton Singer Island in Singer Island, Fla. on March 24, 2018, a $2,216.66 charge to wedding planning company Fleurology Designs of Grand Rapids on May 14, 2019, and an $11,388 charge to City Flats Hotel in Grand Rapids on June 14, 2019. The latter two charges, Spence detailed, were related to a wedding for Kotschevar’s daughter.

Groceries and liquor were also charged to the church’s credit card.

Stutesman, in his statement, said embezzlement is a “crime of opportunity” and causes a “loss of confidence” in both the offender and other people. He said he wasn’t keen on what the state recommended for the offense, citing the “factual basis” that she perpetrated the embezzlement.

“It’s patently unfair to steal $15,000 and not get jail time, while a person that stole a set of golf clubs gets six months,” Stutesman said.

The sentence handed down by Stutesman exceeded the Michigan Department of Corrections recommendation of one day served and no probation. Stutesman said under proposed law in the Michigan legislature, there wouldn’t jail or probation time for embezzlement crimes, something Stutesman did not agree with.

"That's what they've decided," Stutesman said. "They don't want people in jail or probation for this kind of offense. I don't agree with that.”

Stutesman then handed down the sentence. After the trial was adjourned, Kotschevar was handcuffed by a bailiff and led out of the courtroom, ending a case that divided both churches.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

Three Rivers Commercial-News

124 North Main Street
Box 130
Three Rivers, MI 49093

Telephone: 269-279-7488
Fax: 269-279-6007
General email: info@threeriversnews.com