Accused arsonist stole more than $100,000 from church

| March 27, 2010

An Ottawa woman, accused of setting two fires last week, appeared in a La Salle County courtroom Friday morning in an attempt to have her $200,000 bond reduced. Instead, she found herself charged with theft of more than $100,000 from a local church.

State's Attorney Brian Towne said in court the arson fires were an attempt to conceal or destroy evidence of the crime.

According to court records obtained by The Times, Terri L. James, 42, 1002 Ottawa Avenue, used a credit card without authorization from the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 910 Columbus St., to illegally charge "in excess of $100,000" and "paid said credit card with funds" from the church.

The criminal complaint also accuses James of altering church financial records to conceal the alleged embezzlement. She has been church administrative assistant for several years — editing the weekly bulletin and handling the church's financial affairs.

James is suspected of starting a fire that seriously damaged a South Side home and attempting to set fire to another structure on the city's West Side March 17. She was charged with arson and attempted arson after alert neighbors spotted a similar van at both locations shortly before the fires were discovered.

The Class X felony charge is non-probational and, by itself, could result in a six- to 30-year prison sentence. Combine that possible punishment with the potential consecutive arson sentences, the mother of three and the wife of former State's Attorney Michael James is now facing an aggregated prison term of up to 45 years.

Owners of the damaged home, Carol Kozlowski and Vicki Smith, were fellow parishioners and officers at the church with James. Smith is the chairwoman of the church's board of trustees while Kozlowski is the organization's moderator who conducts various church board meetings.

Smith and Kozlowski who own and operate Income Tax, Etc., in Ottawa, however, an unidentified church official told The Times the two women were not the church's accountants.

The motion for bond reduction was denied by Circuit Judge H. Chris Ryan, Jr. following Towne's presentation of the new charge. James pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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Category: Church Security