Crime & Courts

Ex-headmaster pleads guilty to stealing millions from Charlotte-area school, church, families

mgordon@charlotteobserver.com

At 12:06 p.m. Thursday, Wayne Parker put his hand on the Bible in a Charlotte courtroom and swore to tell the truth.

Twelve minutes later, the former headmaster of SouthLake Christian School pleaded guilty to a $9 million lie.

The formal charge is wire fraud, a label that fails to convey the brazenness of Parker’s crime.

Over more than 13 years, Parker, 59, and an unidentified partner stole more than $9 million from the Huntersville school, its affiliated church and the families of his students.

The charge carries up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In return for Parker’s guilty plea, federal prosecutors will recommend a punishment of between seven and nine years. U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn of Asheville ultimately will decide.

Parker, the school’s headmaster and chief financial officer for 18 years, entered and left the federal courthouse without comment. He wore a charcoal suit, and during his 30-minute hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler, Parker stared straight ahead and answered the judge’s questions with one- or two-word responses.

Still unresolved is Parker’s unidentified co-conspirator, who appears in court documents but has not been formally charged.

Both Wade Malloy, the founding pastor of SouthLake Presbyterian, and Parker resigned when church members launched an internal probe of the school finances in the fall of 2014. Malloy could not be reached for comment this week.

By the time the FBI got involved two years ago, the loss of money had long since passed staggering. Over the course of his embezzlement, Parker stole an average of $650,000 a year.

Lavish lifestyle

He spent it building at least two homes, including a 7,000-square-foot waterfront mansion on Lake Norman. He used the rest on international travel, luxury cars and boats, along with Carolina Panthers permanent seat licenses and tickets.

When parents donated money to the school in memory of their dead child, Parker stole it. When his accounts ran short during construction of the lake house, Parker cut the pay of school employees by 5 percent and blamed it on the economy.

As part of the maze he constructed to hide the money, Parker opened dozens of checking accounts and credit card lines. He took out seven loans and created nine limited liability companies.

Records destroyed

When the school finally called for an independent audit, Parker destroyed records and sold property to hide his tracks, prosecutors say.

From the start, he had the partner. Prosecutors say Parker cut the co-conspirator extra paychecks and stole to cover his partner’s college tuition, medical bills, taxes, cars, credit card charges and other expenses.

Jim Hamlen of Huntersville was in court to hear Parker say he was guilty. Hamlen’s two children spent nine years at SouthLake before he and his wife removed them shortly after Parker’s embezzlement came to light.

Outside the courthouse, Hamlen said he still doesn’t understand how Parker’s scheme went on so long, particularly since he “certainly didn’t hide the fact that he had more money than his salary would justify.”

“The people who ran the church should have known, and they didn’t,” he said.

Falling trust

SouthLake Christian has about 660 students. Tuition ranges from $8,500 to $12,000. Hamlen says the scandal – as well as the response by the church and the school – has driven families away.

Two years ago, Hamlen said he met with church leaders after the scandal became public. “I told them they had to stand up and take their lumps and apologize for what had happened. They wouldn’t do it. That’s finally why we left the school,” he said.

Confidence in Parker’s leadership had been falling, says former SouthLake Booster Club president Joe Hewitt.

In 2013, Hewitt said Parker asked him to raise $600,000 for a field house. He only collected a third.

“People didn’t like Parker, they didn’t trust him,” Hewitt said. “There were people at that school who could have written that one ($600,000) check if they wanted to,” he said. “But we couldn’t raise that money, and that was a real telling sign about how much distrust there was.”

As part of his deal with prosecutors, Parker must make full restitution and cooperate with the ongoing investigation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Zolot said. Parker’s attorney, Rob Heroy, says his client has given a full confession.

Parker had to turn over his passport but can travel freely between Charlotte and Seattle, where he now lives. At the close of Parker’s hearing, Keesler added a final condition.

As long as he is free, Parker can carry a job, the judge said.

But he can’t handle anyone else’s money.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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