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Former childcare ministry director facing theft charges

by ANDREW CHRISTMAN - achristman@h-ponline.com

The former director of Little Sprouts Childcare Ministry in Huntington is facing charges after reportedly using the bank’s account for more than $60,000 in personal transactions, court records show.

A police report filed by Huntington Police Department Officer Darius Hillman states that after speaking with church officials at Evangelical United Methodist Church, it was indicated Joetta Byrum, 42, had allegedly stolen a large sum of money from the church since her employment in February 2016 until her termination in December 2017.

The report says one official became suspicious of Byrum after noticing an unauthorized debit charge from the Little Sprouts Childcare Ministries account for more than $200 to Trophy Center Plus. 

“(The official) said she pulled Joetta aside immediately and asked her if she recognized the charge. Joetta claimed she had no idea what the charge was,” Hillman wrote. 

The officials reportedly scheduled a meeting with Byrum on Dec. 18, 2017, according to Hillman’s report. Prior to the meeting, officials reportedly requested bank records dating back to June of 2016, during which charges to Amazon, Target, DaVinci Teeth Whitening, 1-800-Contacts and Spa Cosmetics were noticed.

During their meeting with Byrum, church officials reportedly stated Byrum initially denied using the church debit card for personal expenses, according to the report. But later in the conversation, Byrum allegedly admitted a purchase made at Trophy Center Plus was personal in nature. Byrum’s employment was terminated following the meeting. She was reportedly told to return any receipts she had for purchases charged to the church accounty by Dec. 20, 2017.

Hillman wrote he was told by church officials that Byrum presented a list of debit charges from Amazon which reportedly detailed personal expenses.

“All three church leaders told me Joetta was very apologetic, crying and apologizing for using the church credit card inappropriately. She asked them to ‘show mercy in our actions going forward,’” Hillman wrote. 

Byrum was also in charge of receiving weekly tuition payments for the children’s ministry and depositing the money into the church bank account, Hillman wrote. After officials reviewed financial records from 2016, they reportedly discovered a difference of more than $4,000. In 2017, that difference was reportedly more than $29,000, according to the police report.

After speaking with church officials, Hillman delivered all documentation to HPD Detective Ty Whitacre for further investigation.

Whitacre wrote in a supplemental report that a review of tuitition deposits into the church’s account showed a shortage of $3,839.07 from Feb. 22, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2016, all of which was reportedly collected by Byrum. From Jan. 1, 2017 to Dec. 15, 2017, documents reportedly found a shortage of $40,750.89.

Whitacre added there were five ATM cash withdrawals made from the account, but church personnel reportedly said there is no valid reason for an employee to do so while making authorized purchases. 

Whitacre secured receipts for most of Byrum’s personal purchases from the church account, which he tallied as follows:

$533.48 from Walmart$682.41 from Amazon$1,193.84 in debit card transactions, including to Spa Cosmetics, Orscheln Farm and Home, 1-800-Contacts, Inc., Essential Oils, Target, DaVinci Teeth Whitening, Michaels, Scholastic Book Clubs and Trophy Center Plus.Whitacre indicated the total of Byrum’s personal purchases, cash withdrawls and tuition differences is $63,363.85. Text messages were provided to Whitacre by church officials, which reportedly showed Byrum asking if charges could be dropped due to her admitting guilt and agreeing to repay the money.

Whitacre wrote he attempted to contact Byrum for an interview for the investigation, but she reportedly did not answer. The following day, Whitacre was reportedly left a message by Kristina Lynn from Lynn and Stein Attorneys at Law, who stated she is representing Byrum.

Byrum was booked at the Huntington County Jail on May 4 on charges of corrupt business influence, a Level 5 felony, 12 charges of theft as a Class A misdemeanor and 10 charges of theft as a Level 6 felony. She was held on a $3,000 Huntington cash bond and $30,000 Huntington non-corporate surety cash bond. Byrum’s bond was posted May 7, and an omnibus hearing has been scheduled for July 16.