GOVERNMENT CENTER –– Michelle Blake, 37, Webster, was sentenced to 12 months in jail, five years probation and will have to pay $25,729.73 in restitution to the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Webster and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at A&H.
Blake plead no contest in September to two class G felony counts of theft in a business setting greater than $10,000. As the former secretary/bookkeeper for St. John the Baptist Church and Sacred Hearts Church in Webster and A&H from Oct. 2010 to Sept. 2013, she had written numerous checks to herself from both churches totaling over $100,000.
“I am here to take responsibility for my actions.” Blake said. “I’m not a super-emotional person. I’m not a cold person. I hope that everyone involved can accept my apology.”
Blake was represented by Attorney Joseph Schieffer, her fifth lawyer since being charged in 2014. Both Schieffer and Burnett County District Attorney William Norine went in with a plea deal including three years in prison, five years probation and having to pay the restitution.
“We could have thrown the book at Mrs. Blake and charged her with over 20 felony counts, but we didn’t,” Norine said while standing next to a display board outlining all the times Blake had written herself a check. “We call them bonuses, the checks she wrote herself, but they are all thefts.”
The ruling came at the Burnett County Courthouse from Polk County Judge Daniel Tolan. He handed down the withheld sentence after hearing from parishioners, Blake’s current employer and Pastor Mike Tupa.
“As an individual and as a pastor, I have felt physical and emotional trauma from this leaving me shocked and in disbelief,” Tupa said. “I have felt helplessness and have had the inability to eat and sleep at times.”
Tupa added that his parishioners, most of whom are retired and on a fixed income, have the feeling of fear and betrayal because there personal data was not protected and their money taken. One of the parishioners did speak about forgiving Blake.
“I wonder how you feel about this example you’ve shown your children,” said Laurel Stuseck looking directly at Blake. “I forgive your actions and will pray for you and your family.”
In the courtroom was Blake’s current employer, Mark Foote, human resources manager at North States Industries in Siren.
“I can only speak to her character at work,” Foote said. “She was promoted in June and is a top-notch employee that has an excellent future there.”
Schieffer also read a letter from Blake’s aunt into the record. The letter included that Blake had made some bad decisions, but she believes in Michelle and forgiveness.
Judge Tolan said Blake would be allowed Huber work release, but Burnett County Jail does not currently offer Huber.
Schieffer than stated that Blake would not be able to take care of her children or pay the restitution if she doesn’t have access to the work release program. Judge Tolan asked Norine what he thought about this issue.
Norine said that he came to the courtroom to back up the plea agreement and left it at that.
A separate civil case awarded Catholic Mutual Group $519,307.91 in February of 2015. The judgement was appealed, but dismissed by the Court.