Crime

Paso church employee allegedly embezzled more than $200,000 — and covered it up for years

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The office manager of a Paso Robles church allegedly embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of six years, according to documents filed in an ongoing criminal case.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office in November 2018 filed grand theft embezzlement charges against Claire Eastin, 51, who allegedly stole more than $200,000 from Life Community Church.

Eastin will appear before county Superior Court Judge Craig Van Rooyen for preliminary hearings on Monday and Wednesday. She pleaded not guilty to all charges against her in January.

Eastin allegedly embezzled the money from January 2012 to April 2018, according to a criminal complaint. Other church staff weren’t aware of the theft until May 2018, when they conducted a review of bookkeeping and other records.

They didn’t find out about the theft for years because Eastin was the church’s primary bookkeeper, and she allegedly falsified records to conceal her embezzlement.

Pastor Keith Newsome said Eastin was a church employee for 12 to 13 years and no one suspected she’d stolen any money until she went on sick leave last spring.

“She seemed absolutely trustworthy,” he said. “Everybody was shocked.”

The employee who assumed her duties noticed irregularities and notified Newsome and other staff, who confronted Eastin, he said. She admitted to taking the money and was fired from her position, Newsome said.

A painful situation

The church didn’t contact the District Attorney’s Office until several months after they learned about the embezzlement, as employees weighed whether to handle the matter internally, he said.

They ultimately decided to report the theft because they wanted a record of the incident to exist moving forward, Newsome said.

“We felt a responsibility to the public to do that,” he said.

The District Attorney’s Office issued a warrant for Eastin on Nov. 27, and she appeared in court on Dec. 17, according to court records.

She was released on her own recognizance and is being represented by attorney Brian Buckley of the Public Defender’s Office. Buckley had no comment about the case when The Tribune contacted him on Friday.

Eastin initially gave Life Community a portion of her paychecks after she left her church position, but the money was only a “pittance” of what was stolen, Newsome said.

He said he hopes to get the money back, but he’s not sure if that will ever happen.

“We definitely could’ve used the money,” Newsome said. “That amount of money is a lot of money to us.”

The situation is “extremely painful” for the church community, which still loves Eastin and has forgiven her, he said.

“It’s a very sad thing and a very hurtful thing,” Newsome said. “But we’ve moved on.”

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She also covers communities in northern San Luis Obispo County. Lindsey became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. She’s a native Californian raised in the Midwest and is a proud graduate of two Chicago schools: DePaul University and Northwestern University.
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