Woman ‘stole for the poor’

2011-03-02 00:00

A WOMAN who stole R1,75  million from her church to “help the needy” was yesterday jailed for 15 years.

The high court in Pietermaritzburg heard there is no evidence that anyone other than Empangeni woman Susanna Magrietha Pieterse (52) had benefited.

At an earlier hearing Pieterse pleaded guilty to the thefts between April 10, 2006, and January 13 last year while working at her local Dutch Reformed Church as an administration clerk.

A distraught Pieterse hung her head in her hands and tears streamed down her face after sentencing.

In her statement admitting guilt, Pieterse said she was one of the signatories in the financial affairs of the church.

“I would see people suffering in church ranging from failure to pay their residential rents, they were without food and others had their vehicles on the verge of being repossessed.

“So I would pay their instalments and electricity bills. I turned to wonder since the church has a lot of money, yet people are suffering,” she stated.

She said she asked her co-signatory to sign cheques for her. He would normally sign blank cheques, unaware she was stealing the money because she would say she wanted to pay an account for which the church was responsible.

However, state advocate Ian Cooke submitted that over a four-year period Pieterse stole an average R35 000 per month.

He said her claim that she was “giving to the poor” was not proven and there was nothing to gainsay the possibility she had “stashed” the money somewhere under someone else’s name perhaps.

She had not divulged who the “beneficiaries” were and the church had not been able to establish who they were.

Cooke said if Pieterse was “some sort of guardian angel” or “Robin Hood” one would have expected people who benefited to come forward and support her.

Passing sentence, Judge Isaac Madondo said white-collar crime is escalating and people who commit such crimes must know they are “skating on thin ice”.

He authorised the Asset Forfeiture Unit to recover whatever money it can up to the total R1 750 899 stolen.

However, investigations show Pieterse and her husband, in fact, “owe the bank money” and do not own any unencumbered assets.

Judge Madondo said he could find no compelling or substantial circumstances in Pieterse’s favour to justify a deviation from the minimum sentence prescribed for first offenders found guilty of a theft of more than R1 million.

He noted that Pieterse had a previous conviction from 1987 for fraud involving some R70 000, but said he would not take that into account as it was 20 years ago.

Had he done so, she would have faced a minimum sentence of 20 years.

Judge Madondo said Pieterse had abused the trust the church.

The thefts had disastrous financial consequences for the church.

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