BANGOR – The man who founded and led what became one of the region’s largest churches was sentenced Monday in Penobscot County Superior Court to five years in prison with all but six months suspended for pilfering thousands of dollars from the congregation.
Ron Durham, 61, who resigned as pastor of Abundant Life Church in 2003, also was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution to the Bangor church.
He is to begin serving his sentence in Penobscot County Jail in Bangor at 9 a.m. today.
Durham founded the church in the fall of 1987 with 22 people who met for services in Dow Chapel on Texas Avenue at the former Dow Air Force Base.
The independent congregation is Pentecostal in style and describes itself as evangelical.
With Durham as pastor, the church had grown to some 900 members by 1999, when it opened its current home at 1401 Broadway at a cost of $2.5 million.
Durham was indicted by the Penobscot County grand jury in October 2005 on a Class B theft charge that alleged he stole more than $100,000 in church funds. If he had been convicted on that charge, Durham would have faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.
He pleaded no contest to Class C theft – stealing more than $1,000 but less than $10,000. The crime carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
The charge was reduced as part of the plea agreement, according to Deputy District Attorney Michael Roberts, but does not reflect the amount he believes Durham used without authorization.
Roberts said Durham stole from the church in several ways: by using money in the pastor’s discretionary fund and a church credit card for personal use, and by taking cash advances from church funds for travel that he should have reimbursed when he received payment for his services by the congregations he visited.
Durham’s court-appointed attorney, Marvin Glazier of Bangor, disputed the prosecutor’s figures about how much money was taken illegally.
“It’s clear that if this case were submitted to a jury there would be problems of proof for the prosecution,” Glazier said. “The specific financial procedures that were then in place might have left doubt about whether he had access to these funds without authorization.”
Durham, who had no criminal history, now lives in Savannah, Ga.
He had nearly a dozen supporters in the courtroom Monday.
Superior Court Justice Andrew M. Horton accepted the plea agreement but told Durham he would be sentenced as if he had pleaded guilty rather than no contest.
“By pleading no contest, he has not stood up and accepted responsibility for his actions,” Horton said. “While serving his sentence and on probation, he will have the opportunity to demonstrate that this criminal act is not indicative of who he is and be able to put the matter behind him.”
Several current church members attended the sentencing but did not address the court. Before the sentencing, the church board sent a letter to the judge. Considered to be a victim impact statement, it was not made public.
“We’re pleased this has been resolved and happy to have this chapter closed,” Russell Hewett, chairman of the church board, said after Monday’s sentencing.
Durham told the court he was sorry people had been hurt in the turmoil after his resignation as pastor.
“Nobody can understand the depth of the sorrow I feel about this and the people it has hurt, especially my family,” he said, his voice full of emotion.
The former pastor’s supporters came ready to speak on Durham’s behalf but did not address the court, apparently because of the lateness of the hour.
Durham’s sentencing, scheduled for 3 p.m., was about 20 minutes late getting started. By the time he had entered his plea and been sentenced, it was a few minutes before 4 p.m., and state courtrooms have been told to shut down to avoid paying staff overtime.
“There is no justice on Earth, only the law,” said Dr. Michael DeVita, a retired physician, who with his wife, Diane DeVita, owns the Healing Room in Bangor.
The couple joined Abundant Life in the early 1990s when it was located at Dow.
Earlier this year, new senior co-pastors, Joshua Damon, 29, and his wife, Krystal Damon, 24, both of Bangor, were appointed to lead Abundant Life. They succeeded the Rev. Darren Farmer, 35, and his wife, Rachel Farmer, 39, who left the church for personal reasons.
Since Durham’s departure, attendance has averaged 100 to 125 each Sunday, according to Damon.