Pastor John Henry Walker Walker, accused of bilking thousands from church, gets more than 5 years

The Rev. John Henry Walker, accused of tax evasion and stealing from his Charlotte congregation, was sentenced Friday to more than five years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney also ordered the 48-year-old pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church to pay more than $277,000 in restitution to the government.

Walker pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and lying to federal agents. Though his lawyer asked that Walker remain free long enough to preach a goodbye sermon at his church, the judge ordered marshals to take him immediately into custody to begin serving his sentence.

The courtroom was packed with current and former members of the church, with the pastor’s supporters mostly sitting on one side and his critics on the other. Outside, after the sentencing, emotions flared, with the two sides scuffling and calling each other names. Some angry backers of Walker also charged TV camera crews and photographers, demanding that they stop crowding the path of Walker’s wife, Rosie, an associate minister at the church.

Prosecutors had pushed for a 10-year sentence, saying Walker’s “powers of persuasion” were a danger to his congregation. Walker’s attorney, touting the pastor’s military service and his previous career as a Greensboro firefighter, asked the judge to consider probation and home detention.

Before being sentenced to five years and three months, Walker, wearing a dark pinstriped suit and a blue shirt and tie, stood and offered a rambling, sometimes emotional plea for mercy. He apologized to the court and his family and took a shot at former members of the church who, he said, had tried to undermine his leadership and remove him.

“I’m already punished, labeled as a felon,” he said, stopping once to fight back tears. “I am not perfect. I’ve made mistakes. … But this is the first time I’ve ever faced anything like this. It still seems like a nightmare.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Meyers cast Walker as unrepentant and as a minister who used charisma and bullying to get congregation members to help him steal money from the church for years.

“He is an admitted predator and an admitted liar,” Meyers said. “And he will steal again.”

Prosecutors alleged that Walker stole $160,000 from his congregation through the unauthorized use of the church’s credit card. They say Walker used the church credit card for personal expenses, including hotel rooms with paramours, erectile dysfunction medication, dental work, and airline trips for him and female acquaintances.

Walker was accused of taking more than $70,000 in cash advances from the church credit card between 1998 and 2003. Prosecutors say he provided no receipts or accounting of any kind for the cash advances and refused to do so when asked.

Walker earned almost $600,000 in taxable income from the church and other sources between 1999 and 2003 but reported taxable income of less than $55,000 to the government, the indictment alleges. Prosecutors accused Walker of failing to pay nearly $400,000 in federal and state income taxes for the years 1998 through 2004.

Walker has been pastor at the 500-member church north of uptown since 1992.

Defense attorney Harold Cogdell called two supportive members of Walker’s congregation to the stand Friday.

Annette Willis, a member off and on since 1958, said she and most of those still attending Macedonia Baptist reject the idea that they were victims of Walker. When he asked the church to forgive him, Willis said, “it’s like the slate’s been cleared. I’m reconciled with Pastor Walker.”

Anita Hill, a member since 1984, agreed and said the church members wanted to keep Walker as their pastor: “He’s the one who has helped our families through deaths and births and divorces and problems with our children. … He’s somebody anybody can talk to.”

But both women admitted being among those in the congregation who would give Walker “love offerings” — donations they’d stuff into green envelopes or later, charged an IRS agent, throw at his feet on the altar.

IRS agent Robert Ripley, who helped investigate Walker, estimated that Walker collected more than $200,000 in love offerings — most of it cash — from 1999 to 2004. “Chump change” is what Walker called it, Ripley testified Friday.

It was unclear Friday where Walker would serve his sentence.

The hearing, which lasted about eight hours, ended emotionally, with Walker’s wife joining hands and praying with supporters.

Walker seemed stunned when Whitney announced the sentence. He turned to his supporters and appeared to mouth “Don’t cry,” but several did anyway.

After the sentencing, Michael Todd, a church member who cooperated in the investigation and was pushed out of the church because of his criticism of the pastor’s spending, said: “I wanted to save the church. I wanted us to get back together. I wanted to stop the misappropriation of funds.

“It’s a sad day. I’m not happy he’s going to jail. His children no longer have their father. His wife no longer has her husband. That’s not a good thing. But the justice system worked.”

Another former church member, Danielle Bell, said: “He did wrong. I didn’t want him to do that much time. I wanted him to leave the church.”

One Walker supporter assured another: “He’s going to come back stronger and better.”

Walker’s brother, Leforice Walker, said: “I’m just shocked and stunned” at the sentence.

Judge Whitney, just before the sentencing, acknowledged the pain in Walker’s family and congregation, but added that Walker had defrauded his church and that the evidence of his crimes was overwhelming.

“Fifteen years of tax evasion shows this defendant does not respect the law,” the judge said. “It’s his criminal conduct that has caused this day to come.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 1, 2007.
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