Sometimes in life, there are no winners and losers. However, the settling of a 20-count felony theft indictment is not ordinarily one of those times.
So it was odd — bizarre, even — when just about everyone began waving the victory flag following the Rev. Don Armstrong's plea agreement late last week. Armstrong, accused of stealing $392,000 from Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church while serving as its priest, pleaded "no contest" to a third-degree felony theft charge with a deferred sentence. (If he violates his four years of probation, he could face massive fines and up to 12 years in prison.) He also pleaded de facto guilty to a first-degree misdemeanor theft charge that carries with it a possible six- to 18-month jail sentence and possible fines of $500 to $5,000. Both pleas allow Armstrong to maintain his innocence while admitting that the facts show he's guilty.
Additionally, and perhaps most pertinently, Armstrong still may be required to pay restitution, which could be — you guessed it — up to $392,000. (To read the agreement, see this, click here.)
To see the response from Grace and St. Stephens Church, click here.
This apparently did not dampen the mood of Armstrong's attorney, Dennis Hartley, who did not return the Independent's phone call but told the Gazette, "It's about as close to a dismissal as we could get." Armstrong's camp released incorrect information, claiming that Armstrong had only pleaded "no-contest" to a misdemeanor that carried no possible jail time and minimal fines. The error was repeated as fact in other media outlets, alongside reports that the breakaway church Armstrong now leads, St. George's Anglican Church, was in good cheer.
Meanwhile, the mood at Grace was more muted, but nevertheless upbeat.
"I think there certainly is a desire for justice to be done, and trust that that's out of our hands and in the hands of the state," says Grace Rev. Stephen F. Zimmerman. "I think people were relieved that there isn't going to be a trial."
Parishioner Elizabeth Lily agrees.
"My feeling and the feeling of other people I've talked to is ... great relief that this is over, that it has come to an end, and the feeling that now maybe both sides can move on," she says.
The settlement ends a long saga for the parish.
In March 2007, after being accused of stealing from Grace, Armstrong persuaded Grace's vestry to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, leaving the American Episcopal Church. Armstrong said at the time that he wanted to leave the American diocese because it allows gays to serve as priests and bishops.
After that switch, parishioners who disagreed with Armstrong were locked out of their historic church on Tejon Street until March 2009, when a court ordered Armstrong to relinquish the Grace building and its property to his adversaries.
Later in 2009, special prosecutor Bill Thiebaut, the Pueblo district attorney, hit Armstrong with 20 felony allegations, charging that the reverend had stolen money from his congregation in years past, using much of it to fund his children's education. Thiebaut took the case because Colorado Springs' district attorney in 2007 and 2008, John Newsome, was a follower of Armstrong and once served as Grace vestry's junior warden. El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink also is a member of Armstrong's St. George's church.
Thiebaut says he expects sentencing for Armstrong in December or January. His office is preparing arguments concerning Armstrong's restitution payments, he adds, which will be determined by the judge at sentencing.