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The home of Robert Duane Larson near Wolverton, Minn., is shown in November. Forum file photo

Moorhead church bookkeeper charged with stealing more than $600,000

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MOORHEAD - A former bookkeeper for a Lutheran synod based in Moorhead is facing felony forgery and theft charges after police say he swindled more than $600,000 from the church, spending more than half that on remodeling his house outside of Wolverton.

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Robert Duane Larson, 61, the former bookkeeper for the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was charged Friday in Clay County District Court with one count of felony theft and four counts of check forgery, charges that carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence upon conviction.

Court documents allege Larson would forge checks from the Synod to Rural Life Outreach, a nonprofit that helps pay the bills of financially strapped farmers and other rural residents. He would then turn around and write checks from the charity to him and his wife. He oversaw the finances of both the synod and the nonprofit.

According to a forensic audit requested by police, Larson stole $602,721.22 from RLO and the Synod from 2004 through 2011. The Synod's budget for the RLO is $1,000 a year.

The audit found receipts totaling $346,598.47 linked to the remodel of Larson's home, court records state.

In the charges, police claim the audit found that the remodeling expenses on Larson's house, many of them on dates corresponding with alleged check forgeries, included $109,521.22 at Lamperts Lumber, $21,723.76 at Menards and $14,699 at Home Depot.

Police allege in court documents that Larson admitted he forged checks to himself and his wife, using RLO money to pay for extra things and to make ends meet. Authorities claim that Larson told police he wanted to be compensated for his time devoted to the charity and that forging the checks to himself "became a habit."

Larson would forge the signature of RLO program coordinator Jon Evert, according to the charges.

A search warrant executed on Larson's home in Wolverton showed that Larson and his wife had doubled the size of their home, and Larson told investigators the couple was in the process of adding a two-stall garage, main floor bedroom, bathroom and family room.

Family Christmas letters helped provide investigators with a chronology of home improvements, police allege in the complaint.

Larson's wife denied knowledge of the alleged thefts and isn't charged. However, court documents say that investigators found expenses associated with her, including $9,915.68 at Hobby Lobby, $4,147.25 at Joann Fabrics, $2,856.39 at Michael's Crafts, and approximately $4,000 on jewelry, including a recent receipt for $1,000 worth of ruby jewelry.

Court documents also say a carpenter questioned in the case provided a link between funds stolen from the Synod and work done on the Larson's home. They say that Larson would forge a check from the Synod to RLO, forge another check from RLO to himself, and then pay the carpenter, all on the same day.

According to the complaint, Evert found Larson's tax returns among the RLO officers showing his taxable income as $45,823 in 2006 and $41,651 in 2009.

Investigators say they do not believe Larson hid any allegedly embezzled funds in any accounts. All of the alleged thefts were spent, according to police, on debts, the home renovation and miscellaneous expenditures.

Larson could not be reached for comment immediately Monday.

He is scheduled to make a first appearance on the charge on March 19.

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