Former Project Hope employee faces charges of forgery

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

A former employee of Project Hope, a Cape Girardeau-based faith organization, was in jail Monday evening on charges of forging $22,582 worth of checks on the charity's account.

Sherma S. Wilks, 38, of 3916 Hopper Drive, must post a $22,500 cash bond to be released, an amount set to deliberately mirror her alleged thefts, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said. Investigators discovered that Wilks had told public school officials she planned to move herself and her children out of state, which was another reason for setting a high bond, Swingle said.

Wilks faces three felony counts of forgery for incidents dating back to October. Associate circuit judge Gary Kamp scheduled a preliminary hearing on the charges for June 28.

The three charges are "the ones where the evidence was the strongest," Swingle said. "But I cannot rule out the possibility we will file other counts down the road."

Wilks was arrested Friday afternoon after Project Hope officials reported the thefts to police, said Sgt. Barry Hovis, spokesman for the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

"They reported that they had some money stolen by an employee who was forging checks at the company and paying various places for bills and personal expenses," Hovis said.

Project Hope is a faith-based mentoring program formed by a coalition of 70 congregations in the region, director Denis Rigdon said. The program has trained more than 700 people to be mentors and works in a variety of ways, from helping victims of natural disasters to aiding people who want to rebuild their lives and communities.

The thefts will mean fewer dollars to deliver services, Rigdon said, but the organization is working with its insurance company and bank to minimize the damage.

The thefts were discovered, he said, after Wilks left the agency May 25 and the organization hired a professional accounting firm to help with the books.

Project Hope used an online banking program to prepare checks, and Wilks, who was responsible for entering the checks, apparently took advantage of it, Rigdon said.

"She was supposed to be bringing all the checks to me and getting them co-signed by the board president," he said.

Wilks worked for Project Hope for a little more than 18 months, Rigdon said. She was the first person other than Rigdon to handle the funds of Project Hope, he said. No problems occurred until after a period of scrutiny of her work was relaxed after she seemed to have proven herself trustworthy, he said.

"We believe people can connect to a church and turn their lives around," he said. "We provided an opportunity for that and she was an example of that and did well for most of the time she worked here."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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