The accused embezzler of more than $700,000 from a Santa Rosa church "exploited a position of trust," the congregation's spiritual leader said Tuesday.
Eleanor Zapanta, former business manager of the Center for Spiritual Living, was "the person who was supposed to be watching out for us," senior minister Edward Viljoen said.
Zapanta, 51, of Guerneville, turned herself in Monday on felony charges and faces a court hearing today to enter a plea and to consider her bail, which was set at $1 million.
Zapanta, a single mother of adult children, faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Viljoen, who has led the 1,000-member congregation since 1994, made his first public comments on the case since Santa Rosa police confirmed their investigation into missing church funds last week.
Viljoen said church leaders have been dealing with the loss for seven weeks and began a series of reports to the congregation on the weekend of Sept. 11.
In an interview Tuesday, he confirmed authorities' reports that Zapanta allegedly stole $712,000 from 2004 through 2010 by writing more than 250 unauthorized checks.
Zapanta apparently forged the signatures of the two church officials authorized to sign checks, Viljoen said. He declined to name the officials and said the church's eight other board members had agreed to let him speak for them.
The alleged thefts "started small and grew over time," Viljoen said. "We got accustomed to carrying the weight."
The misappropriations were discovered by church accounting staff during a routine comparison of current financial statements with those from the previous year. That work revealed "an irregular expense which led to the discovery of an apparently forged check," he said.
The church, which operates on a $1.5 million annual budget, has paid its mortgage and other bills but suffered from the ongoing loss, Viljoen said.
Salaries for all employees, including Viljoen, were cut 10 percent and a financial assistance program for church members facing financial hardship was terminated, he said. Both actions were consequences of the financial drain caused by the theft, he said.
The congregation hired a forensic accountant who compiled a detailed report on the missing money that has been turned over to authorities, Viljoen said.
All of the auditor's recommendations for changing business procedures have been implemented, he said.
Viljoen said he has been repeatedly asked how the thefts escaped his notice. He said the congregation's finance committee reviewed financial statements every month, and that local bankers, accountants and engineers have served as the board's treasurer.
"Our blind spot was our deep trust," Viljoen said, noting that Zapanta, the business manager for 10 years, was also a church member known for her kindness and good deeds toward others.
Viljoen said Zapanta told him and others that she had received an inheritance from a relative, and they therefore were not suspicious when she "did something lavish," such as buying a new SUV.
On the bright side, Viljoen said the congregation's faith is being tested as it attempts to practice forgiveness and seek justice.
"We feel the two are complementary," he said.