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‘Looks like a classic fraud,’ former prosecutor says of Celebration Church report

Stovall Weems, church’s founding pastor, denies report’s findings of embezzlement, ‘narcissistic’ behavior & emotional abuse

The News4JAX I-TEAM on Tuesday spoke with a former federal prosecutor who examined the internal investigation into Celebration Church’s founding pastor, Stovall Weems.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The News4JAX I-TEAM on Tuesday spoke with a former federal prosecutor who examined the internal investigation into Celebration Church’s founding pastor, Stovall Weems.

The church and Weems have been in a civil court battle that includes allegations of financial misconduct and fraud. The investigation found that many witnesses described “intense personal anguish and pain caused by working for the Weemses.”

The church’s board retained a law firm to investigate the pastor and his wife after allegations of financial and other impropriety rose to the surface. And now, the board confirms, it’s forwarding the reports’ findings to the authorities to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

“This looks like a classic fraud,” said Curtis Fallgatter, who spent 17 years as a federal prosecutor.

RELATED: I-TEAM: Celebration Church releases findings of explosive investigation into founding pastor

Deception, spiritual abuse, and financial crimes are all allegations leveled against Stovall Weems in the 22-page report, which Fallgatter reviewed.

“I think given what we read here, assuming it’s accurate, it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that the pastor is going to face criminal charges,” Fallgatter said.

The report found Weems used the church to enrich himself and broke church bylaws by making major financial decisions without the board’s approval.

The report says Weems bought a home on the Nassau River and sold it four months later to the church for a $430,000 profit and pocketed the money without board approval. The report calls it embezzlement.

“That’s a prison time case,” Fallgatter said.

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The report also alleges Weems spent $500,000 of government PPP loan money meant for church operations and salaries for a risky digital investment called TurnCoin. The report says if funds are knowingly used for unauthorized purposes, the federal government may seek fraud charges.

The report also accuses Weems of fraudulently manipulating about $1.3 million in debt on another ministry connected to the church to obtain a loan.

“And the federal authorities have jurisdiction over bank fraud, false loans, and it could be multiple victims. The bank could be a victim and of course the church itself could be a victim,” Fallgatter explained.

According to the church’s financial statements, the report says, Celebration’s cash balance fell from $9 million in October of 2020 to $6 million two months later and then dwindled to $2 million the following spring.

John Rockwell, a former state attorney, says a pattern of multiple allegations would help bolster a criminal case.

“It is a very attractive case for whatever prosecuting authority decides to look at this, assuming all of these things pan out in document polls and financial disclosures,” Rockwell said.

The report says a pivotal moment for Celebration Church came in spring of 2018 when Stovall Weems became transfixed on a piece of bread at a service. He later described seeing Jesus Christ on stage and said it felt like he was at the Last Supper.

After that, the report says, witnesses described a dramatic change in the Weemses’ behavior, with Stovall Weems telling anyone who questioned his authority that God was giving him directions through the encounter, which resulted in staff being unable to challenge Weems for fear of being accused of disobeying God’s will.

Fallgatter says, if convicted, Stovall Weems could be facing at least five years in prison.

Stovall Weems has come out forcefully against the report, saying the allegations are baseless and claiming the board refused his requests for a financial audit in 2021.


About the Author:

I-TEAM and general assignment reporter