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Grand Jury returns 20-count indictment of felony theft charges against Rev. Armstrong

By: MARK BARNA
May 22, 2009
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photo - Rev. Donald Armstrong Photo by
Rev. Donald Armstrong Photo by  

A Fourth Judicial District grand jury Wednesday indicted the Rev. Donald Armstrong on 20 felony counts of theft charges, concluding a months-long investigation by Colorado Springs police and the Pueblo District Attorney's Office into Armstrong's financial conduct while he was rector of Grace Church & St. Stephen's parish.

Armstrong, who ministers to about 600 people a week, surrendered to police Thursday and was jailed at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center until posting $20,000 bail later in the day.

If convicted on all 20 felony counts, Armstrong, 60, could spend the rest of his life in prison. Each count comes with a possible prison sentence of four to 12 years, said Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut. Fines against Armstrong could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The DA's office did not provide a breakdown of the 20 counts. But in a search warrant executed by police in November on Grace Church & St. Stephen's, Colorado Springs police Detective Michael Flynn sought evidence suggesting Armstrong had funneled money from the church to pay for his two children's college educations.

On Friday, Armstrong was upbeat about the indictment, saying it was expected and that he is confident he will be cleared of the charges.

"I will, after years of unbridled false accusations, have my day in court, so this is a good step in that direction," said Armstrong, whose Anglican parish is now called St. George's Anglican Church.

In a Friday statement from St. George's, the church expressed unequivocal support for Armstrong.

"We know from our own thorough investigation that Father Armstrong has done nothing wrong and will be found innocent," a news release said.

Grand juries convene when an attorney general or district attorney concludes there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.

The Pueblo District Attorney's Office, rather than the DA's office, convened the grand jury because of a conflict of interest - former Springs DA John Newsome was once a member of Armstrong's church vestry.

A trial, however, would be held in Colorado Springs, though no date has been set.

Wednesday's indictment concludes a long chapter in Armstrong's ongoing saga that began in December 2006, when the rector was placed on leave by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado for alleged financial misconduct.

Two years ago, Colorado Springs police began probing Armstrong's alleged embezzlement of about $392,000 of church funds.

Meanwhile, Armstrong and his Episcopal vestry were planning to break away from the Episcopal Church.

On March 26, 2007, the vestry of Grace Church & St. Stephen's voted to leave the Episcopal national body, join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America and name Armstrong as rector. The CANA parish, led by Armstrong, continued to meet in Grace Church downtown, resulting in lawsuits being filed to determine if the diocese or the CANA parish owned the property.

A Fourth Judicial District judge ruled on March 24 in favor of the diocese.

The CANA parish vacated the Grace property in April, and Armstrong was ordered to vacate his rectory - his home for 12 years - by May 8.

Leaders of Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal parish, which reoccupied Grace Church in April, expressed sorrow about the indictment of Armstrong.

"He's been a good friend, and I am deeply saddened with this turn of events," said David Watts, junior warden of the Episcopal parish.

"It is always sad when a member of the clergy is accused of misbehavior," said Marty Pearsall, rector of Grace Episcopal.

But Edward Brown, a Grace Episcopal vestry member, was critical.

"He's got great gifts, but also tremendous failings," Brown said. "He has a sense of entitlement about himself that can lead to this type of behavior."

The St. George's parishioners interviewed on Friday fully supported their rector.

"Until someone actually proves something against Father Armstrong, I'm backing him," said Kathleen Buzby, a CANA parish member for two years. "He's straightforward and honest."

"The church is totally behind Don," said Marge Goss, "but we will be glad when this is behind us."

After being booked, fingerprinted, jailed and bailed out on Thursday, Armstrong returned to St. George's to preside over the evening Ascension Day service.

"It was a very good service, with a good crowd," Goss said, "and Don was his normal self."

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Call the writer at 636-0367.

To read an interview with Armstrong and his wife, Jessie, go to my blog, The Pulpit.

 

 

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