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WINCHESTER — Blaming Kernstown United Methodist Church officials for calling police about the approximately $182,000 she stole from them hurt embezzler Margaret Ashley Harper Heflin’s chances of getting a lighter sentence in Frederick County Circuit Court on Tuesday.
Heflin, who pleaded guilty in 2018, was sentenced to 50 years with 47 suspended on five counts of embezzlement. State sentencing guidelines recommended a minimum of two years, a midpoint of four years and maximum of five years. In determining Heflin’s sentence, Judge William Warner Eldridge IV cited her lack of remorse.
“Mercy is deserved in some circumstances, but besides the guilty plea there is really not a sense of taking responsibility,” he said. “To go below guidelines, I was looking for reasons, but there really are none.”
Eldridge alluded to Heflin’s pre-sentence report in which she portrays herself as the victim of a “prosecuting church.” Besides blaming church officials for calling police, Heflin quoted the Apostle Paul’s letter to Corinthian church officials in which he lectures them about settling minor legal disputes in secular courts.
“Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that?” Heflin said, quoting 1 Corinthians 6:7. “Why not let yourselves be cheated?”
On the stand, Heflin testified that the money she stole “ended up going back to the church in some shape or form.” When a skeptical Eldridge asked her what the embezzled money was spent on, Heflin said she didn’t know.
Heflin, 33, of Williamsburg, had been attending the church since she was a child and her mother was the church organist and music director. Because she had a banking background and was trusted, Heflin was appointed treasurer in 2012 and served in the role until moving to Williamsburg in November of 2018.
Former treasurer Kelly Henshaw, who Heflin had succeeded, was re-appointed after Heflin departed. Henshaw testified that she discovered the embezzlement in January of 2016. It primarily involved over payments in checks to Heflin’s husband, the volunteer youth director, for reimbursements for youth activities like Bible camps and recreational trips. There were also salary over payments to Heflin’s mother for her musical director duties and double-dipping involving Heflin being reimbursed for money she said was being donated to the church as part of a trust from her late father.
The longer Heflin was treasurer, the fewer financial details she provided church officials. Henshaw said Heflin blamed not having financial reports on her baby being sick.
“We could have done a better job on our end, but when you love someone, you give them grace,” said Henshaw, who said she had been a close friend of Heflin’s before the embezzlement. Henshaw, who is no longer treasurer, said strict new financial rules that provide accountability and transparency have been instituted since Heflin left.
Church officials were baffled about why they were struggling to pay bills despite steady donations from parishioners until the embezzlement was discovered.
“We went from shock to disbelief,” testified Richard Dunkle, chairman of the church’s administration. “There was a profound effect on the congregation. It’s almost like losing a family member.”
A victim impact statement from church officials said the embezzlement included erroneous W-2 forms issued by Heflin to church employees resulting in problems with the Internal Revenue Service that persist today. The church struggled to pay a percentage of its budget to the Virginia United Methodist Church and the church’s Winchester district for costs including the pastor retirement fund. Late payments created tension with district church officials and threats that then-pastor Clay Knick might be removed from his position.
At one point, a sign was placed on the church door warning that water would be cut off if the bill wasn’t paid that day. Purchases of books and Sunday school supplies had to be cut, and a community outreach program was scuttled. The statement asked that Heflin’s sentence not be “overly punitive” but also said she lacked remorse.
“Based on what she and her husband have posted on social media, it’s as if this has never happened. These social media postings have continued, many of which portray her as the victim and the church as a false accuser,” the statement said. “Occasionally, church members have come across the postings which continue to keep open the wound of betrayal that sustains anger and prolongs closure.”
Heflin and her attorney Gregory W. Bowman sought a sentence below the guidelines. Heflin said one of her four young children is autistic and needs extra attention. She said she and her husband are the primary caregivers for her mother who suffered a stroke and needs frequent care. Heflin also said she has skin cancer and has serious medical conditions from giving birth and taking fertility drugs.
Bowman noted Heflin has repaid $17,500 and has pledged to pay at least $500 per month in restitution. “Give her a chance to keep the family together,” he told Eldridge.
But Kristen G. Zalenski, assistant commonwealth’s attorney, said that while her office was sympathetic to Heflin’s plight, she’s had two years to prepare for prison.
“She’s gotten as much leeway as anyone should give her,” Zalenski said. “She wants to make herself the victim, but she is not.”
Eldridge, who said Heflin must pay $130,000 in restitution to the church and $35,000 to the church’s insurance company, gave her until Nov. 6 to report to jail so she could make family arrangements. After telling Heflin that her sentence would include prison time, she apologized to the church.
“I’m so sorry for what I did and my selfish behavior,” a tearful Heflin said. “And for the trust that was broken and the pain I caused the church and my family.”