Ex-business manager pleads not guilty in Santa Rosa church embezzlement

The Guerneville woman accused of embezzling more than $712,000 from a Santa Rosa church started small, writing a few unauthorized checks to herself for several hundred dollars apiece, prosecutors said Wednesday.

But over time, Eleanor Jane Zapanta, 51, business manager at the Center for Spiritual Living on Occidental Road, apparently grew bold.

She began writing bigger and bigger checks for amounts as high as $12,900, according to the criminal complaint against her.

The frequency increased, too. From 2004-2010 she wrote 250 checks topping out at 52 in 2009 for more than $280,000, according to the complaint.

The alleged thefts were finally discovered by church accounting staff. Zapanta surrendered Monday after prosecutors charged her with 14 felonies that could lead to a 12-year prison sentence.

The bespectacled woman pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a Santa Rosa courtroom. She appeared in a blue jail uniform before family and churchgoers.

Judge Ken Gnoss rejected a request from her lawyer, Richard Scott, to reduce her $1 million bail. Gnoss said the amount taken and the possibility that Zapanta could go to prison made the bail appropriate.

Prosecutor Bill Brockley argued that Zapanta violated a "position of trust" and should remain behind bars.

"It isn't just one victim here," Brockley said. "The victims are the more than 1,000 members of the church."

Brockley said an investigation was ongoing to determine whether thefts occurred before 2004 and said there is a possibility of additional charges.

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