James admits guilt in arson, church fund theft

| August 7, 2010

Terri L. James pleaded guilty to arson and theft Friday for setting a house fire March 17 in an attempt to conceal embezzlement of tens of thousands of dollars from her Ottawa church.

Assistant county prosecutor Greg Sticka announced the limited plea agreement in which James admitted guilt to residential arson for setting an Ottawa South Side home ablaze plus theft of more than $100,000 from the First Congregational Church in Ottawa.

Sticka informed Circuit Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. the state would ask for a sentencing cap of no more than 14 years in prison for both counts. One criminal count of attempted arson was dropped in the negotiated agreement.

In previous hearings, State's Attorney Brian Towne said the arson fires were a desperate attempt to conceal or destroy evidence of the crime.

According to court records, James, 42, 1002 Ottawa Ave., used a credit card without authorization from 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 original criminal complaint also accused James of altering church financial records to conceal the embezzlement. She had been church administrative assistant for several years — editing the weekly bulletin and handling the church's financial affairs.

On Friday, James admitted to 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.

Sticka told the court James broke a basement window in the South Side home to throw in some incendiary material to start the fire in a failed effort to burn records she believed could have revealed the theft.

Owners of the damaged home, Carol Kozlowski and Vicki Smith, were fellow parishioners and officers at the church with James. At the time, Smith was the chairwoman of the church's board of trustees while Kozlowski was the organization's moderator, charged with conducting various church board meetings.

James is the wife of former La Salle County State's Attorney Mike James. Ryan set Friday, Sept. 24, for the formal sentencing hearing.



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Category: Church Security

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