Prison for pastor
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
The Free Lance-Star
October 9, 2008
Emotions ran high--and were mixed--in the moments after a Culpeper minister was sentenced to 100 years in prison yesterday.
While members of Charles V. Shifflett's present congregation wept loudly, several elderly women from his old church smiled and clapped.
And, as the overflowing courtroom emptied, two members of the warring congregations had to be separated by a deputy in the hall while others shouted out either their frustrations or their pleasure at their pastor or former pastor's fate.
Shifflett, who was pastor at Calvary Baptist Church for 17 years, received five years each on nine counts of obtaining money by false pretenses from his congregation, three counts of filing fraudulent documents to obtain a worker's compensation award, five counts of obtaining money by false pretenses from two insurance companies and three counts of making false statements on 2003-05 Virginia income-tax returns.
The 57-year-old minister was also sentenced to 12 months in jail for making false statements on his 2002 state tax return.
Judge John McGrath ruled that the sentences should run consecutively, but suspended all but four years of the unusually long term. He also ordered Shifflett to make $25,000 in restitution to two insurance companies and pay $14,500 in back taxes and penalties to the state.
Shifflett pleaded guilty to the charges in June in exchange for prosecutors' agreeing to drop 19 similar charges against his wife and promising that the preacher would not face any federal charges.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Dale Durrer had asked that Shifflett be sentenced to 300 years plus 12 months in prison.
Prosecution on trial
Before sentencing, defense attorneys Charles Bowman and Sammy Higginbotham all but put Durrer and the Commonwealth Attorney's Office on trial, saying they seemed intent upon crucifying Shifflett. "This case was handled differently from the very beginning," Bowman told the judge. "They said, 'We will keep dragging you until there is nothing left.' The Commonwealth is making [Shifflett] more serious than some of the murderers and rapists that have come before the court."
Higginbotham added, "They went after his wife and threatened federal prosecution" to intimidate Shifflett into accepting a plea agreement. Bowman also argued that the commonwealth should have limited its prosecution to a single charge of larceny instead of bringing 20 counts.
In a heated reply, Durrer said Shifflett's wife was originally indicted because her name was on the tax returns. He added, "Leaders should be held to a higher standard or they shouldn't be leaders."
The charges against Shifflett surfaced following a church split in 2005. The breakup occurred when the pastor resigned from Calvary amid allegations of child cruelty leveled by former students at a church-run school.
Shifflett eventually accepted a plea agreement on those charges and was given a suspended sentence. The financial charges came soon after.
In June, Shifflett pleaded guilty to providing income figures inflated by $300 a week to the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission in order to receive higher benefits from Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Church Mutual Insurance Co. of Merrill, Wisc. He reported hurting his back unloading a pony at a church function.
When Shifflett's salary was lowered by $250 a week because of those insurance payments, the pastor had that same amount shifted, as a housing allowance, to the salary earned by his wife, who also worked at the church. That money was not claimed on the couple's tax returns. Janice Shifflett was not an ordained minister and wasn't entitled to a housing allowance under state tax laws.
Bowman told the court that under Internal Revenue Service rules, that money could have been claimed as a legal housing allowance had the church written an agreement to that effect. He said the rural congregation, which had no ruling council or lawyer, was unaware of this. And, Bowman added, there was no dispute that Shifflett was twice injured while performing church duties and was entitled to some form of worker's compensation. He said the preacher underwent two back operations as a result.
A CHURCH DIVIDED
In pre-sentence testimony, probation officer Colleen Kimble said Shifflett told her in an interview that "any wrongdoing was unintentional" and that "the whole situation is over hate."
Archie Seale, who is now assistant pastor at Calvary, testified that his church had suffered significant financial loss because of Shifflett's actions and the subsequent church split. "The fault lies with one individual," Seale said, pointing at his former pastor.
He added that Shifflett's wife could not have attended to pastoral duties because the church didn't allow women to do so.
While Seale contended that parishioners "just followed [Shifflett] blind," witnesses David Jenkins and David Brooks said the church books were always open to the congregation and were printed and left out for members each month.
Both Jenkins and Brooks left Calvary--with about half the congregation--when Shifflett resigned and founded the First Baptist Church of Culpeper. "We still recognize him as our pastor," Brooks said of Shifflett.
Shifflett, who has been in jail since pleading guilty in June, appeared pale and somewhat frail. Before being sentenced, he apologized for any mistakes he said he might have made, the biggest of which was not seeking counsel on legal church matters.
"I've been a preacher for 20 years," he said. "I'd like to go back to being a preacher."
After the sentencing, one woman stood nose-to-nose with one of Shifflett's detractors and cried, "You're not living a Christ-like life!"
A deputy was forced to separate the two.