Alleged church thief rejects plea deal

| May 18, 2010

LYNDEBOROUGH – A Wilton man accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from a small church while acting as its treasurer will head to trial after flirting with a plea deal.

Carleton Johnson, 73, of 1053 Isaac Frye Highway, Wilton, spent 10 years as treasurer of the United Church of Lyndeborough. In 2009, he was indicted on three counts of theft by unauthorized taking; the indictments allege he took about $59,000 from the church’s bank and investment accounts from September 1998 through January 2008, according to court documents filed at Hillsborough County Superior Court North.

Officials later announced a proposed plea deal that would have seen Johnson avoid jail time and pay back most of the money over the next five years, according to the documents. Church elders were not happy with what they say would have amounted to a “slap on the wrist,” and in March, the Rev. Paul Lemire filed an objection to the plan.

The church claims Johnson took closer to $120,000 over the decade that he volunteered as treasurer and that “technicalities” limited his criminal liability to $59,000.

On Friday, Johnson filed a motion withdrawing his intent to plead guilty and informing the court he plans to defend himself at trial. The motion asks the court to cancel a plea and sentencing hearing that was scheduled for Wednesday and to schedule hearings that will eventually lead to a trial.

Johnson’s attorney Shawn Sweeney and Assistant County Attorney Jennifer Sandoval did not return calls seeking comment.

According to a letter Sandoval wrote to Lemire in February, the state and Johnson agreed to a plea bargain that would have included Johnson pleading guilty to the three felonies and accepting a sentence of 1-5 years in prison, suspended for five years, $10,000 in restitution paid at the plea and sentencing hearing, and the rest paid within five years.

Johnson could have faced up to 15 years in prison plus a $4,000 fine for each of the Class A felonies. He has been free on $25,000 personal recognizance bail, according to court documents.

In his objection motion, Lemire asked the court for the full $59,000 to be paid back to the church at the plea and sentencing hearing.

The hearing was scheduled for March 17 but was continued when Johnson was admitted to the hospital after a fall the day before, according to court records.

“I fail to understand why the agreement was made to accommodate the perpetrator and not in the spirit of restitution to the church,” Lemire wrote to Sandoval in February.

Johnson stands accused of withdrawing about $18,000 from a TD Banknorth loan account between Jan. 1, 2005, and Jan. 31, 2008, through an ATM, according to one of the three indictments against him. He is also charged with withdrawing about $16,000 from a Putnam Investments account between Sept. 1, 1998, and April 30, 2000, and of withdrawing about $25,000 from a TD Banknorth checking account between Jan. 1, 2000, and Jan. 31, 2008, according to the indictments.

William Ladd, who represents the church in civil matters, said he did not know the disposition of the criminal charges against Johnson, and that he is not representing the church in any civil cases against Johnson.

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Category: Church Security