RUSH RIVER, Wis. - St. Croix County authorities allege a Roberts woman and her husband embezzled about $190,000 from a rural church here over the course of nearly 10 years.
Kara K. Amundson-LaVenture and Michael LaVenture return to court next week on felony theft charges. LaVenture’s charges stipulate he was party to a crime. Amundson-LaVenture also faces one count of unauthorized identity use, a felony. A preliminary hearing in both cases is set for Tuesday, Jan. 3.
The couple was responsible for $167,551 in unauthorized checks and $21,898 in missing cash from New Centerville United Methodist Church, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. The charges allege the thefts occurred between February 2006 and May 2015.
The complaint states the Amundson-LaVenture used the church’s identity to open a credit card account, the balance of which exceeds its $12,000 limit. In addition to paying church bills, Amundson-LaVenture was entrusted with collecting church donations and fundraising proceeds, according to reports.
The St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office began investigating the case in 2015 after a new pastor took over at United Methodist churches in New Centerville - located in the town of Rush River - and Hammond, and learned the New Centerville church’s treasurer had been embezzling funds.
Bail conditions set by St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham for the husband and wife include a $25,000 signature bond and a requirement prohibiting them from contact with the church.
According to the complaint:
The pastor, Kathy Huneywell, turned over notes from the previous pastor, Steve Rice, which chronicled the situation beginning in May 2015.
“At a closed meeting for the New Centerville Ad Council, Kara LaVenture read a prepared statement admitting that she had embezzled money from the church since 2012,” the complaint states.
Amundson-LaVenture’s husband claimed at the time that he was unaware for years of the embezzlement. He provided an estimate of $39,392 in stolen funds and offered to pay back the church in installments.
It was learned during the transition to the new pastor that Amundson-LaVenture hadn’t been paying the church’s apportionments - fees paid to the Wisconsin Conference United Methodist Church - or other bills.
The church council decided at the time not to pursue criminal charges against her and sought to keep the embezzlement a secret to protect Amundson-LaVenture’s family. Church officials learned the next day that while the church was insured against embezzlement, claims would only be paid if the incident was reported to law enforcement.
The insurance company, Church Mutual, on May 19 gave New Centerville a 120-day deadline to file for the loss and to notify authorities.
Amundson-LaVenture had resigned her treasurer post by that point, a church council member noted that same day. A church council member later learned LaVenture had been writing checks to the church, cashing them and keeping the funds.
The couple turned over a $15,000 check to the church May 27, 2015, which represented the first payment on the stolen funds. However, in June 2015, the insurance company told the church that it would not be liable for any claims if New Centerville cashed the $15,000 check.
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Amundson-LaVenture’s father, an accountant, determined she was responsible for $168,000 and attempted to work out a nine-year repayment plan with the church - a plan that the church council rejected.
Sheriff’s investigators executed a search warrant at the couple’s 157th Street home in the town of Hammond.
While executing the warrant, LaVenture told investigators he would talk if that meant he wouldn’t go to jail - an offer that authorities didn’t accept. But LaVenture began voluntarily talking to an investigator after first invoking his right to silence pending an attorney. The investigator reminded him that anything he said could be used against him in court.
“Michael stated that he did not care because he had nothing to do with the theft, his wife Kara was responsible,” the complaint states. “Michael stated that Kara will admit it was her fault and take full responsibility and tell everyone that he had nothing to do with the theft.”
He then admitted to being responsible for “maybe three checks,” one of which was $61 spent for a church cleanup day.
In October 2016, another sheriff’s investigator met with Huneywell and received an audit from a firm hired by the church’s insurance company that listed $159,751 in losses.
A review by sheriff’s investigator James Haefner revealed the combined loss of checks and missing cash at $189,448.
Haefner also noted in the complaint that expenses on the maxed-out credit card opened under the church’s name included charges for Amazon on-demand videos, a Canadian Walmart, Nordstrom’s, Victoria’s Secret, and hotels in Nebraska and New Mexico.