Opening statements heard in church theft trial

Attorneys for the state and defense yesterday offered their opening statements to the jury and questioned the first witnesses during the first full day of the first-degree theft trial of an ‘Ele‘ele woman accused of embezzling some $85,000 from a Westside Catholic church while serving as the organization’s secretary.

Daria Bruce, 62, was fired from Kalaheo’s Holy Cross Church and its ‘Ele‘ele satellite Sacred Heart Parish in April 2005 after abusing her roles in both the church and the Filipino Catholic Club, a “booster” organization, to move donated funds to her personal banking accounts for more than six years, deputy prosecuting attorney Mauna Kea Trask said in his opening remarks.

Bruce was indicted in January 2006 for first-degree theft, a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. First-degree theft denotes that the value of stolen property exceeds $20,000, and the specific statute that Bruce allegedly violated is the one concerning theft by “deception.”

The jury trial was originally scheduled to begin in May 2006 but was postponed nine different times before Chief Judge Randal Valenciano of the 5th Circuit Court denied a 10th motion to continue the case last Tuesday.

Trask said that one of Bruce’s job responsibilities was depositing donated checks made out to the church, which had been collected during events like Sunday Mass and counted and stamped by church volunteers, into a bank account controlled by the church’s pastor.

Instead, Trask said, Bruce deposited the checks into a separate Filipino Catholic Club bank account, which she maintained control over as the organization’s treasurer from 2000 to 2002 and president from 2003 through 2005.

From there, Bruce wrote checks to “cash” and moved funds to her personal checking accounts, Trask said.

Defense attorney William Feldhacker argued in his opening statement that many of the checks made out to variations of “Holy Cross Church” or “Sacred Heart Parish” were proffered during Filipino Catholic Club fundraisers and were intended for the club, not for the church.

Feldhacker said that similarities between the name of the church and the formal name of the club, Holy Cross Church Filipino Catholic Club, led many parishioners to confuse the two or simply abbreviate the club’s name on checks.

Furthermore, Bruce often paid Filipino Catholic Club bills out of her own pocket and transferred money from the club’s bank account to her personal accounts to reimburse herself for those expenditures, according to Feldhacker. In fact, Bruce occasionally moved money back to the club’s account to make up for any “overages” she had accumulated, Feldhacker said.

Valenciano told prospective jurors on Monday that the trial was expected to last two to three weeks, and Trask alluded to the possibility of more than 1,000 pages of documents and a comfort with large volumes of numbers during the voir dire portion of the jury selection process.

The first of more than a dozen witnesses for the prosecution was Pastor Napoleon Andres, the Catholic priest who presided over Holy Cross Church and Sacred Heart Parish from July 2003 until last month.

Valenciano said yesterday that the trial would continue today and tomorrow before breaking for a three-day weekend as he travels to O‘ahu for a judicial contest.

• Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at mlevine@kauaipubco.com

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