MADISON — A former Onalaska church secretary who stole more than $800,000 from collection plates during a nine-year period was sentenced Thursday in federal court to four years in prison and ordered to repay St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

Barbara L. Snyder, 60, did not offer remorse or an explanation in court for the offense, which Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen, who is also a member of the church’s finance council, said was “probably the biggest tragedy.”

“She never said she was sorry,” Chilsen said after the sentencing.

St. Patrick’s Pastor Steven Kachel told District Judge James Peterson that Snyder’s embezzlement took hard-earned contributions from the parish’s 1,800 families that were intended to help the needy and fund the parish’s school.

“You betrayed them with your selfishness and greed. Their sacrifices were used for your worldly pleasures. You stole from God, the building of His kingdom,” Kachel said.

Kachel extended forgiveness to Snyder on behalf of the parish but turned over to the court the “proper consequences” for her actions.

Chilsen said the effect of Snyder’s theft spread beyond St. Pat’s, one of the largest parishes in the La Crosse Diocese.

“When Onalaska hits newspapers throughout the Midwest because of internal theft problems, companies make note of that and in a close race to get a company to relocate in Onalaska versus … Wausau, we lose … and when (crime) is in the headlines, especially at the dollar amounts we are talking about in this case, it puts us at a very significant disadvantage in recruitment circles,” Chilsen told Peterson.

Snyder, of West Salem, took $832,210, gambled it at nearby casinos, and falsified financial records and bank deposit slips to conceal her theft, according to court documents.

“She looked us in the eye at finance meetings and lied” about the church’s finances, said Frank Abnet, a church deacon.

Although Snyder worked at St. Pat’s for more than 30 years, authorities could only verify her theft going back nine years, limited to using mainly bank records of her expenditures as evidence, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Antonio Trillo.

Kachel, who has been St. Pat’s pastor for seven years, said the amount of Snyder’s theft “was probably more” than could be determined from records but did not speculate on the actual total.

Snyder discarded original records on collections, referred to as count sheets. In August 2016, she lied to law enforcement officers who interviewed her about her excessive spending at a local casino. Snyder denied gambling with church funds and falsely said she had 10 to 15 years of count sheets in her office that were reconciled with the church’s accounting books, Trillo wrote in a memo to the court.

Investigators found count sheets from 1994 and earlier but no recent ones, Trillo wrote.

Her lies led authorities on “a wild goose chase,” said Peterson, who factored obstruction of justice and abuse of a position of trust into the length of her sentence.

Snyder’s listing income of $162,949 in 2015 led to charges of false statements on her tax return for under-reporting her income and failing to disclose its source.

She pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud and making false statements, and joined the government’s recommendation of a sentence within the 41- to 57-month advisory guideline range.

In imposing four years of prison, Peterson said it sends a “strong message of community disapproval … anything less is inadequate and more is beyond the need for punishment.”

Peterson ordered a gambling assessment and treatment for Snyder after she reports to prison on Dec. 14. He also ordered her to liquidate her interest in a 2014 Cadillac SRV.

Commenting on Snyder’s sentence after court, Chilsen said she would not be able to repay the parish “in five lifetimes,” but thought four years was “about right.”


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