A former Lutheran church treasurer who swindled up to $1.4 million from his congregation and drove his church into foreclosure was sentenced to four years in prison Wednesday after a contentious two-day hearing filled with pleas for mercy and demands for righteous judgment.
Gregory Olson, 52, was the church treasurer and property manager at Calvary Lutheran Church in Las Vegas during the depths of the economic downturn. Between 2006 and 2009, he solicited loans from church members under the guise of pursuing renovations. He withdrew and pocketed money from the church’s bank accounts. He reaped nearly a half-million in mortgage loan proceeds from the church by wiring the funds to a financial company he founded.
“I didn’t start out with any kind of scheme. I didn’t mean to hurt the church,” Olson said in a tearful statement to the court late Wednesday. Olson first attended the church at age 5 and returned as an adult to volunteer.
He said his responsibilities with the church became so overwhelming that he could not dedicate adequate time to his job or his family.
“I was at a loss financially from not working and spending so much time at the church,” Olson said. “I’ve hurt so many people with my actions, and I’m sorry.”
Dozens of disgruntled senior churchgoers who were affected by the scheme packed a federal courtroom for the sentencing hearing Tuesday. Several returned Wednesday for U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon’s final ruling.
“We want to forgive you because that’s our mandate. Christ says that we have to,” said church member Alan Clark. Clark still asked the judge to send Olson to prison. But in a conciliatory gesture he told Olson some church members would write him letters “to make your time in there somewhat easier.”
Prosecutors asked for a 121-month sentence. Olson asked the judge for as little prison time possible. He said he needed to take care of his 11-year-old twin daughters and his mother, whose health is failing. Prison, he said, also could cost him his family farm in North Dakota.
Gordon acknowledged that the well-being of Olson’s daughters merited consideration but said losing the family farm could be “karmic” as Olson’s actions caused the congregation to lose the church.
Olson pleaded guilty last year to one count of wire fraud and four counts of tax evasion, for failing to disclose his fraudulently obtained income to the IRS. Gordon sentenced him to 48 months for the first count and 36 months for the other counts, to be served concurrently. He granted Olson’s request to remain free until June 9, after his daughters finish the school year.
“I have to dispense justice with a sense of mercy as well,” the judge said, amid murmurs of disapproval from the church members who attended the hearing. The church was struggling when Olson took over its finances. It lost its building in foreclosure proceedings after the scheme but since has been renamed and moved to a new location.
As part of the plea deal negotiated with the government, Olson agreed to pay more than $974,816 in restitution to the church and $270,885 to the IRS. Federal authorities say he defrauded the church of at least $1.47 million.
Church members who testified at the hearing were rowdy at times, making little effort to hide their reactions to testimony.
One witness said he wrote a check for $15,000 after Olson told him the church needed the money.
“My wife told me not to, and I did it anyway,” Ed Sholikian said. “I rue the day that I did because I hear it all the time.”
He described Olson as “the best con artist in the world.”
“He’s such a slick willy, he’s better than Slick Willy,” Sholikian said.
Contact Jenny Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of prison time prosecutors sought for Gregory Olson.