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Church embezzlement earns former St. Paul principal two-year prison sentence

Kari Amundson-Laventure

A former St. Paul assistant principal accused of embezzling nearly $200,000 from a rural Baldwin church will spend two years in prison and faces seven years of probation.

Kara Amundson-LaVenture faced six felony theft charges in 2015 after members of the New Centerville United Methodist church discovered about $190,000 had been misappropriated during the nine years Amundson-LaVenture served as the church treasurer.

All but one of the charges were dropped May 2016 when LaVenture pleaded guilty.

A restitution hearing will be scheduled at a later date.

According to a criminal complaint filed in St. Croix County, Amundson-Laventure initially admitted to church staff she embezzled nearly $40,000 in church funds. Her husband, Michael LaVenture, who is also accused in the case, offered to pay back the funds.

The church learned of the missing funds when they discovered Amundson-LaVenture failed to pay bills and fees to the Wisconsin Conference United Methodist Church.

New Centerville initially decided not to seek criminal charges to spare Amundson-LaVenture's family, but the company insuring the church required a police report before they could make an embezzlement claim.

This also barred the church from cashing a $15,000 check the couple offered as the first payment to replace the stolen funds.

The church also rejected a nine-year payment plan Amundson-Laventure proposed to replace more than $160,000.

Amundson-LaVenture sobbed as Eileen LaFavor, a member of the New Centerville congregation, described the lost funds' financial toll on the church. The congregation, whom LaFavor described as a group that had become "extended family," were "shattered" by the betrayal.

As treasurer, LaFavor said, Amundson-LaVenture nearly drained funds intended to pay bills, provide college scholarships for church families, and donate to relief efforts in Haiti. She said Amundson-LaVenture nearly emptied a $10,000 memorial fund for a lifelong member of the congregation and that, at one point, the church's electricity had been shut off.

"Ultimately, (Amundson-LaVenture) stole from the poorest of the poor, apparently without conscious," LaFavor said.

But the impact, LaFavor said, was not only financial.

Disagreements over whether to accept repayment plans or to contact the police caused division among the otherwise close-knit congregation.

Amundson-LaVenture, through sobs, said depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders she's had since high school drove her to theft.

St. Croix County Judge Scott Needham rejected this claim, calling her actions  "volitional, intentional, calculated, planned and long-term."

He said that the Amundson-LaVenture and her husband, who earned a combined $300,000 salary outside of the stolen funds, did not need the money for urgent matters.

Instead, Needham said, they used the money to pay for new furniture, travel, trips to the salon and equestrian activities.

Needham admonished Amundson-LaVenture before handing down the sentence, borrowing words his grandmother reserved for the most serious infractions: "Shame on you."

"Where was the shame those nine years you feel today?" he said. "It always strikes me that those sentiments and feelings don't come until you're caught."

Michael LaVenture's jury trial is scheduled for next month.

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