Saturday, October 08, 2005


NLR preacher indicted in theft of car, $11,000

North Little Rock, Arkansas - Nine months after accepting a job as pastor of a North Little Rock church, Robert David Keith disappeared with $11,000 in church money and a Mercedes Benz he bought in the church’s name, a federal indictment alleges.

The indictment, released Thursday, also accuses Keith, a fugitive since early August, of absconding with $8,169 that he conned an insurance company into giving him for repairs on the car after he wrecked it.

Keith was pastor of the Warren Hill Missionary Baptist Church at 6304 Crystal Hill Road from July 2004 until April, when church officials began questioning him about money matters, and he "up and left in the middle of the night," said Rhonda Elliott, an assistant to the current pastor, Sabaran Steger.

Federal agents have been looking for Keith since Aug. 3, when a federal judge issued an arrest warrant for him.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in Little Rock handed up an indictment charging Keith with five counts of mail fraud. Each charge is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

According to the indictment, Keith began reorganizing the church in the months after becoming its pastor. He fired the secretary and assumed some of her duties, including picking up church mail from a post office box.

Without authorization to buy property in the name of the church or its members, or to write checks on the church’s account, Keith got a $23,900 loan from a financial institution, using the name of a church member, the indictment states. It says the loan was used to finance his Oct. 16, 2004, purchase of a 1997 Mercedes, on which he never made payments, causing the default of the loan.

Keith wrecked the car in late December but didn’t report the one-vehicle accident to police, the indictment says.

It says he switched the church to a new insurance carrier Jan. 5 and included the car on the policy, without disclosing the existing lien or the accident. Then, it alleges, he reported Jan. 25 that the car had been wrecked Jan. 17, prompting the insurance company to mail him a check Feb. 3 for $8,169 for repair costs. The check was made out to the church, but Keith cashed the check and kept the funds without getting the repairs made, the indictment charges.

In March, Keith "convinced the church to relocate and to purchase another piece of real property for that purpose," according to the indictment. To handle funds associated with the relocation, Keith added his name to the account and then withdrew $11,000, the indictment says.

Elliott said the church, which has about 60 members, never did relocate.

She said Steger, the new pastor, is trying to straighten out the financial mess. Wanda Tappin, the church’s former finance minister, said Thursday that the mess includes a $5,000 cell phone bill that Keith left behind.

Speaking for Steger, who was on his way to a meeting and could not be contacted directly, Elliott said, "He feels as though it is a travesty for a man to do that and call himself a man of God."

She added, "We’re on our way back, and better things are going to come."

See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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