Attorneys for the Rev. Donald Armstrong and the Pueblo District Attorney’s office were pleased Monday with the plea agreement in the criminal case involving the former rector of Grace and St. Stephen’s Church in Colorado Springs.
A Fourth Judicial District grand jury indicted Armstrong in May 2009 on 20 felony counts of embezzling $392,000 from Grace Church. Armstrong on Friday pled no contest to one felony count, according to El Paso County court files. Though Armstrong in his plea doesn’t admit guilt, the court views it in a legal sense as a guilty plea.
As part of the agreement, Armstrong admitted guilt to a new charge, misdemeanor theft, said Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut. A sentencing hearing on this charge will happen before the end of the year.
Armstrong’s sentence could include a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months in the El Paso County Jail. Misdemeanor charges are brought for thefts between $500 and $1,000.
On the felony count, Armstrong has been placed on four-year’s probation. If violated, he will be a convicted felon and could face four to 12 years in prison, Thiebaut said. A restitution hearing will be held, probably in January, to determine how much money Armstrong must pay back to Grace Church.
Both sides claimed victory in the plea bargain.
“It’s about as close to a dismissal as we could get,” said Armstrong’s attorney, Dennis Hartley.
“This was a just solution,” Thiebaut said.
Larry Hitt, chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, said in a statement: “We believe Armstrong’s entry of a ‘no contest’ plea to a class 3 felony theft charge and his effective guilty pleas to a class 1 misdemeanor theft charge constitute a tacit acknowledgement of the truth of the criminal charges against him.”
Armstrong, 61, was accused of using church and trust money to fund his two children’s education while rector of Grace and St. Stephen’s between July 1999 and March 2006. The allegations led the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado to place Armstrong on leave in December 2006. He was defrocked the following year.
In May 2007, the Colorado Springs police began its criminal investigation of Armstrong, resulting in a Fourth Judicial District grand jury returning a 20-count indictment of felony theft charges against him two years later.
The criminal trial was supposed to begin in October, but several weeks ago the DA’s office initiated talks to reach a plea agreement.
The Pueblo District Attorney’s office is prosecuting the case because of a conflict of interest with the Springs DA’s office. Former Springs DA John Newsome is a former member of Armstrong’s church vestry.
Hartley said the DA’s office started talks because it knew it had a bad case. “There was a real question of what could be proved against Don Armstrong (at trial),” he said.
The biggest factor, Hartley said, was that 19 of the 20 counts might be dismissed due to the statute of limitations, which is three years in a Colorado criminal case.
Thiebaut had no comment about the statute of limitations issue.
Armstrong agreed to the plea bargain, Hartley said, because it was a toss up how a jury would react to the evidence. “If you get a bad jury or bad breaks at trial, you can get an adverse verdict,” Hartley said.
Hartley indicated it was unlikely Armstrong will have to pay anything near the $392,000 alleged in the felony charge. He said the DA’s office included a lot of costs Armstrong had nothing do with.
The criminal case isn’t the first controversy involving Armstrong and the Episcopal Church.
After Armstrong was defrocked, he became in March 2007 a priest within the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a conservative province in the Anglican Communion. His Anglican breakaway parish occupied Grace Church downtown until a Fourth Judicial District court ruling in March 2009 forced them out.
Armstrong renamed his parish St. George’s Anglican Church and rented property to worship at in the Mountain Shadows area.
At the time, Armstrong said the break was due to theological differences with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. arm of the Anglican Communion.
Armstrong also said that the theft accusations were manufactured by the diocese because of his criticism of the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of gays in church leadership roles and liberal interpretation of Scripture.
Those ideas resurfaced in a statement on the plea bargain posted on St. George’s website.
“We have become convinced even more strongly that controversies within (the Episcopal Church) were the catalyst for the Diocese’s investigation and complaint, for the purpose of silencing our bold and successful defense of orthodoxy through our parish’s life, discipline, and teaching ministry,” the statement says.
On Sunday, Armstrong and his St. George’s congregation were upbeat about the plea agreement, sources say. Many in the parish hugged Armstrong and wished him well.
St. George’s member Colleen Miller said she’s “relieved and excited” by the outcome.
Edwin Montgomery, a vestry member at Grace and St. Stephen’s from 2003 to 2006, said the theft accusations against Armstrong were “a vendetta from the word go.”
“My support for Father Armstrong is firm,” he said.
For more on the plea agreement, go to Barna’s blog, The Pulpit, at www.thepulpit.freedomblogging.com.