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Accused detailed alleged theft of Holy Cross funds

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of February 9, 2023)

The former administrator of Holy Cross Catholic Church, accused of opening an off-the-books bank account with since-deceased Pastor Richard Murphy and diverting more than a half-million dollars of parishioners’ donations for her own benefit, detailed how the alleged thefts were accomplished in a recorded phone interview with a Vero Beach Police detective.

If the 35-minute conversation between Deborah True and Vero Beach Police Detective Kyle Edder is admitted into evidence in True’s criminal trial for felony grand theft of church funds, it could sound pretty damning to a jury.

Police say the secret bank account was used to pay True directly and to pay off her debts over a period of six years, and that True knew the money came from church donations.

Murphy, who died in March 2020, and True signed paperwork to open a PNC checking account in June 2012. They were the only authorized signers on the account, which True eventually admitted to closing after Murphy’s death – supposedly to protect Murphy.

True initially denied any knowledge of a PNC Bank checking account that neither the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach nor Holy Cross Catholic Church parishioners knew anything about.

“If there was an account opened, Fr. Murphy would have opened it and put me on as a co-signor. I didn’t open it,” True said.

But when Det. Edder explained that he already knew True benefited from more than a half-million dollars siphoned off into that account, and that he’d already seen bank records that were brought to him by the church’s new management, True’s memory ever-so-gradually became more clear.

After remembering the account existed, True relayed to Edder that Murphy “held the checkbook” in his office.

“I didn’t do much signing on it. The only time I would sign was with his permission,” True said. “If it’s an account that we had and I was a signer.”

True said she remembered occasionally getting paid on the side for coordinating weddings.

But Edder told her that the payments went way beyond the $100 compensation she got for weddings. He said he had a “stack of checks,” about 80 of them, made out directly to her, written on the PNC account that was not reported to the Diocese, totaling more than $148,000.

“I’d have to see them. If it was, it was over the years, you know,” True said. “Without seeing, that’s the only thing I can tell you. I’m sorry.”

While maintaining that every action over the years was under the strict direction of Murphy – who is no longer alive to defend himself – True laid out in detail how she and the longtime priest diverted funds donated for the support of church operations and charitable work.

True said donations from stocks were often put into that account. She explained that the overflowing offering plates at the Christmas and Easter Masses presented a ripe opportunity to replenish the off-books account. She said Murphy would tell her to put a certain amount from Christmas and Easter in the off-books account, and the rest in the regular operating account. “He would give bonuses out of that account,” True said.

From Father’s Day donation checks of $5 and $10 to large gifts of $7,000 or more from well-known parishioners in the community, and every amount in between, court records show donations from hundreds of alleged victims funded the PNC account that only Murphy and True knew about.

“He used that account to pay out to priests also. He was, how do I put this, generous to a fault,” True said of the late Fr. Murphy. “That’s all I can tell you. He was generous to a fault, to everybody.”

When Edder asked if Murphy was responsible for depositing any checks, True said no. She explained that she alone used a check scanner to deposit checks directly into the church’s accounts.

Then Edder told True that he knew church funds were used to pay off a debt of True’s at One Main Financial in the amount of $9,300.

“When Fr. Murphy died, he left me, and I have another priest who can verify all of this, he left me, at his house, he had his own bag that he had his own cash in,” True said. “It was his personal fund.”

When Murphy fell ill, True cared for him and she told Edder that she even moved into the rectory in Murphy’s last days. “When he was dying, he told me I want you to get that money. That is yours,” True said.

“I used that cash that he gave me, that he left to me to pay the One Main off. But if I put $9,000 or more into my personal checking account, the IRS could come after me and say where did you get this money,” True said. “Then I could be audited, if you understand what I’m saying. So I put in that (Holy Cross) account, then I wrote it to One Main.”

True said if Edder looked in the records, he would find a cash deposit for more than $9,000 into the church account. “It was a wash,” True said.

“So you are familiar with this 1625 account now?” Edder asked.

“I am familiar with the account you’re talking about now, yes,” True responded.

Edder told True her Discover card bill of more than $10,000 had been paid off through an electronic payment from the PNC church account in April 2020 after Murphy died.

“That would have been with Fr. Murphy’s permission,” True said.

Edder emphasized that the money in the PNC account belonged to the church and True finally acknowledged that the money in the PNC account was not, in fact, Murphy’s, but that it came from parishioners’ donations. “Yes, that’s where the money would have come from,” she said.

“I never did anything with that account that he didn’t tell me to do,” True said, her voice beginning to sound unsteady.

“So he told you it was OK to use Holy Cross funds to pay off your own lines of credit?” Edder asked.

“He did. As I told you, he was very generous to a fault,” True said, adding that she thought Murphy gave her the money because of all the extra uncompensated time she spent working.

“What made you think it was OK to use parishioners’ donations to pay off your own personal debt?” Edder asked.

“I did what Fr. Murphy told me to do,” True said.

“Why was the account never disclosed to the Diocese?” Edder asked.

“That was his instructions to me,” True said.

“So we’re blaming everything on Fr. Murphy?” Edder asked.

“I, I can only tell you what Fr. Murphy told me to do. That’s correct. That’s an account that he never reported to the Diocese, and he didn’t want it reported,” True said.

Edder asked True – who had a fiduciary responsibility to both the Diocese and to the parishioners as parish administrator – how all of these secret dealings made her feel personally. Did she feel conflicted or troubled by what Murphy was telling her to do?

“I’ll be honest with you. I never gave it much thought,” True said.

“I just saw it as a gift,” she said.

Before transferring to Holy Cross in 1997, True and Murphy worked together as church administrator and priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Stuart starting in 1985.

When she became a divorced single mother 30-plus years ago, True said was working three jobs but often couldn’t pay her bills.

“He (Fr. Murphy) would ask how are you doing, and I would say, I think I’m going to have to get myself another job because I’ve got myself buried here,” True said. “My ex-husband never paid his child support.”

“He’d say what have you got and I would tell him and he would say, OK, go ahead and pay this one,” True said. “And that would relieve me.”

Sometimes the payments were by paper check signed by Murphy, and other times True said she entered the church’s account information and authorized an electronic transaction to pay off her debt to get the funds there faster.

Edder informed True that the total dollar amount that she benefited from was $553,000 going back to January 2015.

“Oh my God, I had no idea,” True said, adding that things build up over the years.

PNC could only produce records going back to January 2015, so the accounting history of Holy Cross and St. Joseph’s churches over the 30 years True and Murphy worked together before 2015 will never be known.

True said she has nothing in writing stating Murphy’s instructions for handling the church funds.

Thirty minutes into the interview, Edder informed True that he’d be turning the case over to State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl’s office and that she would likely be arrested. 

True was originally charged with organized fraud of $50,000 or more, but after more evidence was obtained, that charge was dropped and she was charged with first degree grand theft pursuant to a scheme or course of conduct, which Assistant State Attorney Bill Long said is a more complex charge that includes the crime of organized fraud that True was initially charged with.

Now back in Colorado, True will turn 70 years old on March 5, and she says her mentally challenged adult son lives with her and needs her care. Realistically, by the time this case goes to trial in three, four or five years with the current felony case backlog, unless she’s in extremely good health, it’s tough to imagine True would spend much time in state prison if convicted on a first-degree felony and given the harshest possible sentence.