5 INVESTIGATES: Man previously investigated for fraud, now charged with embezzling from church | KSTP.com

5 INVESTIGATES: Man previously investigated for fraud, now charged with embezzling from church

Updated: November 14, 2019 07:30 PM

A New Brighton man who admitted to police he stole tens of thousands of dollars from a metro area Catholic church last summer had previously been investigated for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his family but was never charged with a crime.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which opened the fraud investigation into Christopher Seiple, closed the case in 2018 when the county attorney declined to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence.

Officials from the sheriff's office declined to answer questions about the investigation and to be interviewed for this story.

Charges: Man stole over $33K from Mendota Heights church

But the criminal case file revealed "significant missteps" by investigators, said former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who analyzed the records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

"There were leads that were not pursued or followed up on that I think, in my view, could have been and should have been," she said.

As the latest case against Seiple plays out in Dakota County District Court, family members believe he should have been charged long before he began working for the church.

Great Aunt Dorothy

At the peak of their investigation, Hennepin County Sheriff's Office investigators wanted to ask Seiple questions about his relationship with his great aunt, Dorothy Balent, and her estate, which was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Financial records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES did not give Christopher Seiple any share of her estate, but he was able to gain access to the nest egg.

Balent held shares of stock in Xcel Energy that were ultimately valued at more than $250,000. According to her will, which was executed in 2008, she named two of her nephews, John and Timothy Seiple, as the family members who would inherit her estate.

After Balent's death in 2013, Timothy Seiple discovered the money held in her estate was gone.

"It was just such a slap in the face that Christopher had just done this right behind our back," Timothy Seiple said.

In August of 2018, Christopher Seiple agreed to a short interview when investigators showed up at his front door. 5 INVESTIGATES obtained an audio recording of that interview. 

"Were you at all aware that Dorothy already had a trust set up and already had a power of attorney set up?" the investigators asked.

"No I did not," Seiple responded. "Nor did she ever make that information available to me."

Seiple also acknowledged that his name was not in Balent's will. He said he believed Balent "took pity for him" and wanted him to have the stock.

A video of Dorothy Balent, taken by one of her nephews, courtesy of Jame Seiple

'Serious red flags'

Several financial documents contained in the criminal case file reveal how Seiple was able to gain access to his great aunt's money.

Swanson, who reviewed these records, pointed to key pieces of evidence that should have raised red flags with investigators.

One example is a document Seiple filled out in 2013, representing that he was authorized to have access to her stock. 

"In here, he says the money is held in the name of the Dorothy Balent Trust," Swanson said, thumbing through the documents. "But then later on, he disavows any knowledge of the trust."

Swanson said Seiple's contradictory statements raise concerns that she believes law enforcement should have followed up on.

"I don't see investigators probing him further saying, 'Well wait a minute, let me show you these papers,'" she said. "I think they should have followed up more on this. It's very concerning."

Swanson said at another point in his interview, investigators confront Seiple about a bank account that records show he opened one week before Balent's death.

On the account application, it says Balent's "son is a member" of the credit union, but Balent had no children. Investigators asked Seiple about the application. He denied that he ever misrepresented himself.

"I don't see any evidence in the file that they really pursued this issue," Swanson said after reviewing the transcript of the interview. "It's significant to me. It certainly should be a strong red flag."

Family takes action

In 2014, Timothy Seiple and his brother sued Christopher Seiple over the money that was taken.

A judge found that he "wrongfully took possession" of the stock. Seiple was ordered to pay a six-figure judgement to the rest of his family, which remains unpaid to this day.

When asked by law enforcement about the summary judgment, Seiple said he knew his family had asked for the money back but that he was struggling to pay.

"Right now, I owe the federal government and the state, and they're in line with liens on my house and everything," Seiple told the investigators.

In response to a request for comment, Seiple's attorney told 5 INVESTIGATES that his client "disputes the position of his relatives."

Charges: Seiple spending $400 a day on scratch-off tickets

While Seiple avoided criminal charges in the fraud investigation, he was charged with theft by swindle in the summer of 2019.

According to court documents, Seiple worked as Director of Operations at the Church of St. Peter in Mendota. Church leaders discovered more than $33,000 was missing from the church coffers. 

Investigators found the trail of missing money lead back to Seiple. When interviewed by police, Seiple said he put the money in his bank account, because he was "behind on his mortgage" and was buying $400 a day of scratch of tickets.

Church leaders declined to comment while the case is still pending, they told 5 INVESTIGATES in an email.

Seiple is expected in court in December for a hearing.

Kirsten Swanson can be reached by phone at 651-642-4406 or by email here.

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