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Posted on Fri. May. 18, 2012 - 01:01 am EDT

Embattled cleric’s death ruled suicide

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FORT WAYNE — Steven E. Clapp’s body was discovered Tuesday afternoon at his Fort Wayne home, and the Allen County Coroner’s Office has ruled the death a suicide by asphyxiation.

Clapp, 64, was the head of Christian Community Inc., a non-profit research and publishing group that focused on congregational issues.

A police report said Clapp had been depressed “due to financial and legal problems” but had not made any mention of killing himself. A police sergeant recognized Clapp’s name and asked detectives to investigate; no signs of foul play were found.

Clapp’s name was familiar because of recent news reports: Christian Community handled the finances for other non-profits, including the Religious Institute in Connecticut and Many Voices in Washington, D.C., and this year, Clapp admitted to those groups that the money Christian Community held on their behalf was gone. Religious Institute officials said it is owed more than $400,000; Many Voices’ website said they were “in a heartbreaking financial position.”

In addition to handling finances for other groups, Christian Community was running a loan program, promising investors 10 percent returns and encouraging participants to borrow against their 401(k) retirement funds to invest in it. That program lost an additional $500,000, Clapp said.

Clapp authored or co-authored more than 30 books, conducted workshops on personal finance and has been a board member of Planned Parenthood Indiana, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Greater Fort Wayne Campus Ministry and the Indiana Consortium on United Ministries in Higher Education.

He was a volunteer assistant pastor at Lincolnshire Church of the Brethren and said he was an ordained minister.

The Rev. Debra Haffner, executive director for the Religious Institute, said she was praying for everyone involved.

“We offer our condolences to the family at this difficult time,” Haffner said. “Our prayers are with the people who loved him. It’s just tragic.”

Haffner and her husband have said they lent Christian Community $100,000; her sister Jodi Wallace said she lent $75,000; and their mother lent $100,000. Clapp said all of the lent money was lost.

Clapp said all of the losses were simply because of bad financial decisions and denied any wrongdoing. Several agencies were investigating Christian Community; it is unclear how those inquiries will be affected.

It was not Clapp’s first fall from grace.

Clapp was an ordained minister with the United Methodist Church in Illinois until 1984.

Two years later, he was indicted in a federal court in Danville, Ill., on 15 counts of giving false statements to an insured financial institution, alleging he obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in bank loans using fake documents, according to court records and articles from the News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill.

Clapp’s trial was to start in February 1987, but in January, Clapp defrauded a third bank of $500,000 while out on bond, then used the money to flee, becoming a federal fugitive, court records show.

He was arrested more than a year later at the airport in New Orleans and pleaded guilty to seven of the original charges, plus a new charge of fraud for the loan from the third bank and failure to appear, according to court documents.

On June 17, 1988, Clapp was sentenced to 13 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $2.1 million in restitution. Clapp was released about 4 1/2 years later, on Jan. 22, 1993, and moved to Fort Wayne, where Clapp said he joined Lincolnshire Church of the Brethren.

Within months, he was working for Christian Community Inc., and by 1996, Clapp was listed as president while still on probation for fraud convictions and still owing restitution.

Lincolnshire Pastor David Bibbee said Clapp’s wife, Sara Sprunger Clapp, has asked for privacy. Arrangements for private services through D.O. McComb and Son’s Foster Park Funeral Home are pending.

Clapp is survived by his wife; two adult children, Holly Sprunger and Michael Sprunger; and by four grandchildren. Memorials can be made to Lincolnshire Church of the Brethren or to the Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L. Street NW, Washington, DC 20037.

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