Prosecutors have asked for a 10-year prison sentence for a former Anderson County Commission chair and retired school teacher who has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $60,000 over more than three years from a church in Rocky Topâ€”and allegedly lost more than $37,000 of the stolen money at a casino in North Carolina.
James Michael â€œMikeâ€ Cox is scheduled to be sentenced in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton on Monday.
Through defense attorney Rhonda F. Lee of Powell, Cox has asked for probation.
Cox was indicted on the Class B felony charge of theft of more than $60,000 on February 2, 2016. The thefts were alleged to have occurred from Longfield Baptist Church, where Cox was church treasurer, between June 1, 2011, and December 1, 2014.
Cox entered a guilty plea on June 1, 2017. The minimum sentence is eight years probation, and the maximum is 12 years in prison, according to court documents.
In a notice filed this past Monday, the state outlined enhancing factors that should be considered by Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Donald R. Elledge when he sentences Cox on Monday, July 24.
Here are the factors: The offense involved more than one victim, the amount of the loss was particularly great, the crime was committed to gratify Cox, and Cox abused a position of trust.
In the notice of enhancement factors, Anderson County Deputy District Attorney General Anthony J. Craighead said the church has about 100 members, and they gave to the church through weekly offerings.
â€œThe defendant, by stealing money from the bank account of the church, was, in effect, stealing from every member of the church,â€ Craighead said.
The total amount stolen was $103,817.62, Craighead said. Thatâ€™s $43,000 more than is required to make the crime a Class B felony.
â€œAfter the small amount they were able to recover through insurance and other methods, the amount the church is still out is $89,817.62,â€ Craighead said.
Besides losing that money, the church learned that several bills had gone unpaid, Craighead said. These bills included insurance payment, utility bills, tax payments of church employees, and other bills, Craighead said.
â€œNot only were these bills overdue, the church had no money to pay these bills,â€ he said. â€œThe stealing of this cash put the church in a financial hole, (from) which the church had to dig out. Or, to put it another way, not only did the defendant steal the money, he left the church in dire financial straits with no money to get out of that predicament.â€
Prosecutors said the crime was committed for Coxâ€™s pleasure or excitement.
â€œThe state will submit proof that the defendant lost over $37,000 at a casino in Cherokee, North Carolina,â€ Craighead said. â€œThe state would argue that the money taken was spent for the defendantâ€™s pleasure. This was not money spent on necessities. This was money spent for the defendantâ€™s entertainment and only to satisfy the defendantâ€™s apparent need for excitement at the prospect of winning money.â€
Because he was treasurer, church members had expected Cox to spend the money conservatively as needed, and they trusted that he would manage the funds honestly and appropriately, Craighead said.
â€œBy stealing this money and using it for strictly personal reasons, he abused that private trust placed in him,â€ Craighead said.
The state said prison time is necessary to show the seriousness of the offenses and to deter others who could commit similar offenses.
â€œThis defendant stole a very, very large amount of money, Craighead said. â€œHe stole this money over a long, extended period of time…This was not an impulsive action, but a thought-out scheme. He had time to reflect on what he had done. He then continued to do so.â€
Cox only stopped once the money was gone, Craighead said.
â€œTo give the defendant a probated sentence and allow him to â€˜pay the money backâ€™ would be to give the defendant an interest-free loan, with no set period to pay it back,â€ Craighead said. â€œThis would be at the expense of the members of this churchâ€™s congregation who would have never agreed to loan the defendant the money. The defendant should serve his sentence.â€
In a victim impact statement, Longfield Baptist Church Pastor Mark Stanley said the crime was very emotionally injuring to the church and that, if Cox is unable to repay the money taken, then he should serve time, according to an investigation report also filed this past Monday.
Cox has submitted a letter from a Peninsula outpatient clinic in Knoxville that says he is being treated for depressive and anxiety disorders, the investigation report said.
Asking for probation, the defense said Cox has accepted responsibility for what heâ€™s done, has helped the prosecution, has been a good citizen, has never been charged or convicted of another crime, and has shown great remorse for his actions. He confessed publicly and never denied his actions, Lee said in a sentencing memorandum that asked for probation and was filed by the defense on Monday.
Also, Cox has paid more than $4,000 toward restitution, and he can make monthly payments of $1,000 toward restitution, Lee said.
In a list of mitigating factors cited in the sentencing memorandum, Lee said Cox suffered a mental breakdown and was severely depressed. Also, his crime did not cause a bodily injury or threat, Lee said.
Before his crime was detected, he compensated or â€œmade a good-faith attemptâ€ to compensate the victim, making payments of $4,000 to the church before criminal charges were brought against him, Lee said. Cox was told to stop making payments to the church because criminal charges were being brought against him, the defense attorney said.
Cox committed the crime under very unusual circumstances, and it is â€œunlikely that a sustained intent to violate the law motivated the criminal conduct,â€ Lee said.
â€œMr. Cox has a lengthly career of over 30 years in public service and has not committed any crimes,â€ Lee said. â€œHis motive does not indicate any intention to partake in criminal conduct.â€
Cox served on Anderson County Commission for 28 years until he was defeated in 2010. He had earlier retired from his Lake City Middle School teaching job after a 36-year career, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported last year. The Oak Ridger reported that Cox had also taught at Medford Elementary School, which is now closed.
He last served as Anderson County Commission chair in 2004-2005. He represented District 4, which included Lake City (now Rocky Top) and Briceville.
Cox told the News Sentinel that he had been the church’s treasurer since 1976, but his life “changed completely” after he lost his re-election bid in August 2010. He said he “lost all purpose in life” and was diagnosed as manic-depressive.
Other mitigating factors cited by the defense in the sentencing memorandum filed Monday are:
- Cox is 68 and in poor physical health. He has been diagnosed with cancer and has been treated for it. He is diabetic and has other conditions, including hypothyroidism, acute pancreatitis, and prostate cancer.
- He is a lifelong resident of Anderson County who still lives here with his wife, and his children and grandchildren live in Anderson County or in nearby counties.
- He and his parents were lifelong members of Longfield Baptist Church.
- He has had a very positive effect and influenced thousands of young people through his teaching, coaching, and lifelong commitment to the young people of Anderson County.
- He can make monthly restitution payments.
- He is not a danger to county residents, and the likelihood that he will re-offend is extremely low.
- He has no criminal history other than a few seatbelt violations and one speeding ticket in 2005.
The case against Cox was investigated by Jeff Gilliam of the Anderson County Sheriffâ€™s Department.
More information will be added as itÂ becomes available.
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