This is the story of Mary Margaret Kreuper, nun-turned-thief who stole $835,000 from a Torrance elementary school to fund her gambling habit.
Who is Sister Mary Margaret Kreuper?
Margaret Kreuper is a 80-year-old Los Angeles native. She retired in 2018 from the position of principal at St. James Catholic School in the LA suburb of Torrance, about 20 miles outside downtown Los Angeles. She became principal at St. James in 1990. Kreuper took her vow of poverty when she was 18 years old and spent the next 59 years of her life dedicated to the Catholic church. Kreuper was “one heck of a teacher” during her years as a nun, according to the U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II. But somewhere along the way, she went completely astray.
How was Kreuper’s theft scheme unmasked?
In September 2018, Kreuper announced that she was retiring. Consequently, the archdiocese procedurally conducted a financial review to help the incoming principal take on the reigns of St.James. For years, the nun had been telling parents that the school was cash-strapped. Questions often arose of why the school could not fund field trips, install an awning for the outdoor lunch area or even upgrade textbooks that were 20 years old. Each time, Kreuper had the same response to the community: “How do you expect to pay for it?” All the while, she spoke openly about her gambling trips to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. She claimed that her vice principal’s wealthy relatives funded the casino excursions, prosecutors told the press.
The 2018 audit revealed that Kreuper was in charge of the school’s credit union account, where she was meant to deposit cash and checks from tuition, fees and donations. She also oversaw a savings account that funded the living expenses of the nuns who worked at the school. Kreuper gave herself in when she ordered school employees to alter and destroy financial records during the audit. Out of suspicion, they reported the incident to the pastor at St. James Church, Msgr. Michael Meyers. Also, while the audit was underway, a parent asked a question at a school meeting about an old tuition check that had an endorsement on the back of a check that did not line up with the school’s primary account. Investigations determined that the money went to accounts the school didn’t know about.
Further investigations revealed that Kreuper started diverting school funds in 2008 “to pay for expenses that the order would not have approved, much less paid for.” She falsified both monthly and annual financial reports to hide her fraudulent conduct from the St. James administration and to maintain her access and control of the school’s funds, according to court documents.
According to Poonam Kumar, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, Kreuper had diverted checks and cash from St. James into a church account. Since no one was holding her accountable for the church account, the nun took advantage of that. She used the account’s funds to pay for “large gambling expenses incurred at casinos and certain credit-card charges.” Kumar told the Washington post that Kreuper embezzled the money before it was accounted for, displaying “repetitive and deceptive behavior, over and over again.” According to the prosecution, the nun-turned-thief had stolen what’s estimated to have been the tuition for 14 students at the K-8 school.
Retired nun gets one year in federal jail
In July 2021, Kreuper pleaded guilty to one count each of wire fraud and money laundering. On February 7, 2022, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II sentenced her to a year and a day in federal prison. The judge also ordered the now retired principal to pay more than $825,000 in restitution. When confronted, Kreuper claimed that the salary differential between nuns and priests meant she was owed this money.
Kreuper’s attorney, Mark Byrne, said his client had accepted the judge’s one-year prison sentence. They were, however, pushing for probation. Byrne argued that while the money nun Kreuper stole might have affected the school’s funding, her actions “didn’t decrease the quality of education students received” at St. James. In addition, Byrne said that Kreuper wasn’t aware of her gambling problem until she was accused of embezzling more than $835,000 in the elementary school theft scheme.
Kreuper will report to prison by June and will be released in 2023. She will be on supervised release for two years after completing her prison sentence, her attorney said. Sister Lana Chang, who served as vice principal at the school, was not charged despite being initially implicated in the elementary school theft scheme.
St. James Catholic School, Torrance elementary school, elementary school theft, nun-turned-thief, Mary Margaret Kreuper, Sister Lana Chang, Mark Byrne