FARMINGTON — The church's bank account is empty, but its spirit is full.

An embezzlement scandal left the New Life Worship Center, 8121 E. Main St., with no money. But the church's pastor said its members have forgiven the alleged thief and are again making donations to the church.

Pastor Ruben Romero said nearly $80,000 was taken from the church over the last six to seven years. Romero noticed the church had no money in September when he tried to withdraw from the church's bank account and saw it had negative funds.

Anita Jonhston, a 66-year-old Aztec woman hired as the church's bookkeeper, was allegedly depositing the church's money into her son's bank account without her son's knowledge, said San Juan County Sheriff's Office Detective Lt. Cory Tanner.

Anita Johnston
Anita Johnston (Courtesy of San Juan County Sheriff s Office)

Johnston was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of a second-degree felony for allegedly embezzling from the church. She is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing on Thursday.

New Life Worship Center, meanwhile, is focused on rebuilding.

"We basically start from ground zero," Romero said.

But Romero said he's confident the church, which has about 45 voting members and 100 people who regularly attend services, will continue to operate.

"We are still operating, and we thank God we have a very giving church," he said.

Romero said the church became aware that Johnston was stealing money about a month before they contacted the sheriff's office on Oct. 4. The church waited to involve police because, according to Romero, Jonhston left the pastor a voice mail in which she apologized for stealing money and said she was going to pay it back.

Romero said church officials finally called police when it became apparent the church was not going to get its money back.

Tanner said Johnston is in financial trouble because of past embezzlement convictions. In April 2001, she pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony for fraud and a fourth-degree felony for embezzlement. She received a conditional discharge in those cases, which means she was allowed to complete probation and have the felony convictions removed from her record. She was also convicted of a misdemeanor embezzlement charge in September 2010, according to a state court website.

A woman has been arrested on suspicion of stealing nearly 80,000 from New Life Worship Center in Farmington. The church is pictured here on Friday.
A woman has been arrested on suspicion of stealing nearly 80,000 from New Life Worship Center in Farmington. The church is pictured here on Friday. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Romero said the church was not aware of Johnston's criminal history.

Despite Johnston's alleged betrayal, Romero said church members continue to be generous and make donations. In addition to weekly tithing, the church is in the middle of collecting massive amounts of candy and water for Farmington Safe Treats on Halloween night. And members have provided enough donations for an upcoming youth group trip to go on as scheduled, Romero said.

"Whatever led her to do this, we will never understand. Unfortunately, this happened to us, but we're not going to let it dictate our reaction," Romero said. "We prayed for her, and we asked God to forgive her. We forgive her."

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.