The former board chairman for the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, Los Angeles, was arrested Monday for allegedly stealing more than $11 million in church money and using it to purchase a home, a membership at Disneyland’s exclusive dining club and pay other personal expenses.
Charles Thomas Sebesta, 54, of Huntington Beach, is charged in a federal indictment with six counts of wire fraud, five counts of bank fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
He pleaded not guilty Monday to the charges in the indictment. Trial was set for Oct. 22 and a detention hearing was scheduled for Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles.
According to the indictment, Sebesta was hired in 2001 as the church’s facilities manager and ultimately joined the church in 2005 and served as its local chairman. In that capacity, he controlled the church’s financial assets and operations, including at least five of its bank accounts, according to the indictment.
From at least August 2006 through December 2016, Sebesta allegedly caused the church to issue checks and other payments to fictitious companies for which he had opened bank accounts, as well as to accounts in his own name and in the names of his relatives, the indictment states.
In an effort to conceal the payments, Sebesta allegedly forged a church member’s signature on numerous checks drawn against the church’s bank accounts. In the fall of 2008, Sebesta oversaw the sale of church property in Hollywood for $12.8 million, and he skimmed a significant amount of the proceeds for his personal use, including purchasing a home with more than $2 million in cashier’s checks drawn from church bank accounts, according to the indictment.
Sebesta falsely recorded the thefts in church records as donations, as well as environmental remediation and other payments to fictitious companies which Sebesta named so they appeared legitimate, the indictment alleges.
In June 2010, Sebesta allegedly used stolen church funds to purchase a membership at Club 33, Disneyland’s exclusive dining club, where he hosted high-profile entertainment companies, including professional sports teams, and their employees. In 2009 and 2010, Sebesta allegedly wired $1.86 million and $309,622 in church money toward his own personal tax accounts in order to generate overpayment refunds to himself from the U.S. Treasury and the California Franchise Tax Board, respectively, according to federal prosecutors.
Prosecutors contend Sebesta deceived fellow church members and others by creating fictitious email accounts, including one in the name of a prominent real estate executive, whom Sebesta impersonated to further his scheme.
In total, Sebesta allegedly stole at least $11,438,213 of church assets and also stole $34,032 from a private high school that also employed him, according to the indictment.
If convicted of all charges, Sebesta would face up to more than 250 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.