- LAura Montgomery
- Tape and turkey: A police raid on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving proved that Grace's saga is far from over.
The police tape is long gone this morning, as parishioners at Grace Church and St. Stephen's rush in from a swirling snowstorm for a 9 a.m. Sunday service.
Though cops took the church's computers four days ago, bulletins still were printed, outlining the day's worship and welcoming Bishop Alpha Mohamed, an Anglican leader visiting from Tanzania, to Colorado Springs for a long-awaited visit.
The church pews are half-filled as the service begins, and the church members sit, stand and kneel through a series of hymns and prayers. Speaking quietly, Mohamed gives a long sermon punctuated by the sound of recent snowfall sliding off the roof.
And then the Rev. Donald Armstrong, rector of the congregation, stands to read the day's announcements. He talks about Mohamed's visit, scriptural details and services during the Christmas season. Somehow, he neglects to mention the incident of Wednesday morning, when Colorado Springs police cars lined the curb in front of the church, and tape barred access to Grace Church and St. Stephen's and its surrounding buildings.
"It looked like a mass-murder scene," says Dennis Hartley, a Colorado Springs attorney. "It was the most yellow tape that I've seen in 36 years in this business."
The client who allowed Hartley to view that scene is Armstrong himself, accused by different groups of embezzling church funds, illegally seizing the historic church building and ditching the American Episcopal Church for the Diocese of Nigeria as cover for his alleged misdeeds. An Episcopal court last year determined Armstrong stole nearly $400,000 from the parish, and the Nov. 26 search sent a clear signal that the church matter could segue into criminal charges.
The dispute already has landed in civil court, with the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado suing to reclaim the church property. That trial is scheduled for February in El Paso County district court.
Grace members who continued with the Episcopal church have been forced into a sort of exile since the congregation splintered. Some saw the raid as a promising sign.
David Watts, junior warden for the group that now worships at a nearby church, happened to drive by Grace after police arrived.
"I was astounded," Watts says. He adds that he's hopeful his group will regain the historic church building, citing the Internal Revenue Service's decision to let the exiled group keep the taxpayer identification number the parish has used for decades.
Armstrong, for his part, seemed largely unfazed even as police milled about Wednesday morning. Though he wouldn't speak with reporters, he sounded calm as he chatted on a cell phone.
"They just arrived and are loading up all our computers," he said in a matter-of-fact voice.
Colorado Springs police have been investigating Armstrong for more than a year, though a special prosecutor from Pueblo is overseeing the investigation. John Newsome, outgoing district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties, was a lay leader at Grace and has remained loyal to Armstrong as a church member. The case will likely stay with the Pueblo prosecutor even after Dan May, Newsome's replacement, takes office.
This week, police have been sifting through the evidence but aren't ready to release a list of what was seized.
"It's going to take a little while," says detective Michael Flynn.
Hartley will say little about the implications of the search for his client, offering only: "It's an ongoing investigation, apparently."