MASON, MICH. - The lawyer for a priest accused of embezzling from an Okemos church argued Friday that his client and his client’s mother should have access to nearly $800,000 seized by Michigan State Police.
It’s not the first time the Rev. Jonathan Wehrle has tried to access those funds in recent months.
On May 11, a day after news broke of an embezzlement investigation at St. Martha Parish in Okemos, State Police learned Wehrle entered a Huntington Bank branch and attempted to withdraw more than $700,000 from his accounts, according to court records.
The teller at the bank, having seen news coverage on the investigation, notified Michigan State Police. Wehrle was arrested two days later.
Wehrle has been charged with one count of embezzlement of $100,000 or more, but prosecutors have said they have enough evidence to add another four counts of the same charge.
Police and prosecutors have alleged Wehrle used money from St. Martha Parish to pay for work and materials at his Williamston home. An ongoing audit, prosecutors have said, estimates about $5 million is missing from the parish.
Wehrle, who founded St. Martha Parish in 1988, was placed on administrative leave by the Diocese of Lansing May 9. He is currently free on a personal recognizance bond.
In June, prosecutors filed an application for a lien against Wehrle’s $1.4 million Noble Road home. In the application, prosecutors described Wehrle’s attempt to withdraw money from his Huntington Bank accounts and recounted the investigation up until that point.
The document said Wehrle had “sole access” to St. Martha’s finances and offerings, “with no oversight within the parish.”
It said a Plante Moran audit indicated Wehrle used checks from St. Martha’s to pay “mortgage bills, utility expenses, property taxes, personal property (e.g., televisions and electronics), and countless home improvement or construction projects at 1400 Noble Road.”
The application lists 10 residences that Wehrle owns or has owned since 1988 in Mason, Williamston, Okemos, Pleasant Lake, Delton and in Florida.
Besides the money Plante Moran claims Wehrle spent on his home in Williamston, the auditing firm traced more than $200,000 from St. Martha’s bank accounts to expenses related to the Pleasant Lake home, according to the application.
The property in Pleasant Lake was sold in March for $700,000. Wehrle’s lawyer Lawrence Nolan has said the home belonged to Wehrle’s mother, Dorothy.
Prosecutors in July served Wehrle with notice of seizure of his bank accounts and the Williamston estate. The seizures, made under the omnibus forfeiture act, require a criminal conviction to proceed.
Nolan submitted objections to those seizures Aug. 2, arguing some of the money belonged to Wehrle’s mother and the seizure of Wehrle’s own accounts “would leave the defendant penniless and with no way to pay for his own necessities, including medical care, household expenses and attorney fees.”
At issue are six separate accounts: Dorothy Wehrle’s social security account, which Nolan estimates has about $800 in it currently; two accounts with a combined amount of about $28,000 meant for Dorothy Wehrle’s funeral costs; an account with about $649,000 from the sale of Dorothy Wehrle’s Pleasant Lake home; Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s checking account, which contains about $14,000; and Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s savings account which has about $109,000.
Nolan argued Friday that money in the first four accounts belongs to Dorothy Wehrle and should not be part of the seizure. He said Rev. Jonathan Wehrle is a cosigner on at least three accounts “as a matter of convenience.”
“It’s her money,” Nolan said after the hearing. “People should not have their property taken from them when they’re not involved.”
Nolan said some of the figures in the accounts are estimates since all of Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s financial records were seized by the Michigan State Police. Nolan said so far he has scanned about a dozen of the 75 bank boxes state police seized that contain financial records from Wehrle’s home and St. Martha Parish.
Nolan said he believes the money from Dorothy and Jonathan Wehrle’s accounts was sent to the state police but cannot obtain records to verify that.
“I don’t know where the money is,” Nolan said. “We’ve got 75 banker boxes, probably 63 to go, and I still don’t have a handle on where the money is.”
At Friday’s hearing, Allen said he would free up Dorothy Wehrle’s social security account upon a written stipulation from Nolan and Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Dewane.
Allen said he will decide on the other accounts when Rev. Jonathan Wehrle’s preliminary hearing resumes Sept. 1. The hearing, which began July 7, will determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
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