KEY WEST, Fla. — A delay in the trial of a Key West pastor for theft of church funds, has not delayed congregants donations to replenish missing money and restore the historic building.
It has been 17 months since Rev. John W. McKenzie, the former pastor accused of stealing more than $54,000 from Saint James First Missionary Baptist Church in Key West, was charged with the crime.
If the latest trial date sticks, McKenzie will stand trial Nov. 17 in Key West. After eight pretrial hearings and five trial postponements, it looks as if McKenzie will get his day in court and his former parishioners will close a troubling chapter in the church’s history. He remains free on personal recognizance.
“Some church members have been asked to give pre-trial depositions in October,” said Peggy Ward, a trustee on the St. James board. “It’s been a long time coming.”
McKenzie has pleaded not guilty; his lawyer, Alan Fowler, said he did not want to comment.
McKenzie’s alleged theft came to light after the church found it didn’t have enough money in its accounts to finish extensive renovations to its building and interior. On June 18, 2013, McKenzie was asked to come to the Monroe County State’s Attorney’s Office where Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators questioned him about missing funds. Investigators arrested him on felony theft charges that day.
The modest concrete church at 312 Olivia St. remains as it was when work was halted in mid-stride in late 2012, so parishioners continue to meet elsewhere to worship. Church members first held services in the Frederick Douglas Gymnasium in Bahama Village but now worship at the Roosevelt Sands Center at 105 Olivia St.
Visiting pastors have been leading worship services since McKenzie’s departure at the request of the trustees, Ward said. Former Rev. W. (Bill) Strange is overseeing the church’s operations.
Donations have allowed the church to pay architects finalizing plans for the day when the renovation can be restarted. Ward and other church members have tried to raise money through public appeals; a St. James First Missionary Baptist Church restoration fund at Keys Federal Credit Union is open for donations, she said.
St. James, one of Key West’s most historic African American churches, was founded in 1876 by freed slaves from Georgia, according to Visitflorida.com. The church’s trustees fired McKenzie after the trustees discovered funds were missing. They ordered him out of his church-provided home in summer 2013.
The 51-year-old told investigators he accessed the church money because collections during services were down, investigators wrote in their complaint. According to bank records, McKenzie repeatedly asked for, and received, advances on his pay, in some cases three times in one month.
Prosecutors are looking into whether McKenzie may have used church money for a farm owned by his family. According Florida’s Division of Corporations, McKenzie is president and chairman of McKenzie Brothers Farms Inc., which was incorporated on July 31, 2012. The company’s address is 2007 Staples Ave., Key West.
Articles of Incorporation list other members of his family as officers: Willie J. McKenzie is listed as director; Alonzo McKenzie is vice president; and Alfred A.; James A.; and Danny L. McKenzie are officers without title.