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A time of rebuilding: Church looks to restore trust after theft arrest

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Stacy Vogel
November 12, 2007
— The money is minimal.

What hurts the members of Hope Lutheran Church more is the theft of their trust.


“It definitely is a rebuilding, when you have a breach of trust like that,” said Scott Wasemiller, council president of the Milton church. “Somebody that’s been a leader in our church, yeah, that makes it more difficult.”


Sue Mehlert, 43, of 9136 Raven Drive, Milton, was a member of the church council and director of the high school youth group when she was arrested Oct. 27 on two counts each of burglary and theft.


Milton police say they caught Mehlert stealing donations made at Thursday-night church services. Donations have been missing since June, said Sgt. Jim Schumacher.


Now, it appears the theft extended even further. Church officials looked into the youth group accounts after the arrest and found some discrepancies, Schumacher said.


Checks Mehlert wrote didn’t match what she recorded in the register, Schumacher said. Expenses entered in the register by past directors were changed to make it look like more money had been spent.


Milton police believe Mehlert stole more than $1,000 from the youth group checking account, Schumacher said.


Everyone has been affected by the news, but it has hit the church youth especially hard, Wasemiller said.


“The senior high youth worked hard for that money, sometimes car washes, bake sales and cinnamon rolls for fund-raisers,” he said.


“They look up to this person, and sometimes they’re in disbelief that it happened.”


Church officials already have taken steps to prevent theft in the future, Wasemiller said. They’ve installed new locks and implemented new procedures for security and money-handling. They’re considering installing video cameras and alarm systems.


Meanwhile, the criminal investigation continues. Milton police turned over its initial report to the Rock County District Attorney’s Office and continues to work with church officials to determine how much was stolen.


Mehlert admitted to taking $10, Schumacher said.


So far, the department can prove only the thefts from the high school account and close to $100 that was missing from the donation bag the day she was arrested.


Wasemiller believes the total stolen from donations to be less than $500, but the church might never know the exact amount, Schumacher said.


The district attorney hasn’t brought formal charges yet, but Mehlert faces an initial court appearance at 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26, a spokeswoman for the office said.


Before her arrest, Mehlert also was principal of Martin Luther Christian School, a private school in Stoughton. The Milton Police Department contacted Stoughton police to let that department know about the situation, Schumacher said.


“We have been in contact with the school, and they’re reviewing their records,” Stoughton Police Chief Pat O’Connor said.


Ken Kluever, school board president, declined to comment on the investigation, citing legal advice. Mehlert’s employment status with the school remains unclear.


As for Hope Lutheran, members have to find a way to move forward as a church, Wasemiller said.


“Hope Lutheran Church is in a process of healing,” he said, “and we can just pray for this person and her family and just move on.”


Preventing thefts

Milton Police Chief Thomas Gilland offers the following tips for churches—and any organization handling money—to prevent theft:


-- Make sure several people count money coming in or out.


“You count the money; I count the money, we count the money,” he said. “Then we take it to the bank, and they count it.”


-- Require two signatures on checking accounts.


-- Reconcile accounts every month.


The Milton Police Department is willing to talk to businesses and organizations about specific theft-prevention measures. For more information, call (608) 868-6910.



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