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.
Zapanta had been a member of the church more than 10 years and has lived in Sonoma County for three decades, her lawyer said.
She has two grown children, who attended the hearing, and owns a house.
Scott said he thought the case would be resolved without a trial. He said he would go over each of the alleged transactions with his client.
"It's simply a matter of determining what's provable," he said.
Her next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12.
The non-denominational church operates on a $1.5 million budget. Senior pastor Edward Viljoen said in an interview earlier this week that the financial drain caused a 10 percent employee pay cut and the termination of an assistance program for members in need.
Neither prosecutors nor church officials would explain how the missing money went unnoticed. Brockley said during an eight-month period last year, Zapanta wrote 39 checks for $138,000.
Church members watched the hearing from the gallery. They said they were instructed by Viljoen not to comment. But one church member said, "All of us are here in support of Eleanor as is the congregation itself," said the man who would not give his name.