The former chief financial officer of a well-known auto dealer is accused of stealing about $500,000 from the business to pay for her mortgage and other expenditures, authorities said.

Charity Chastain, 56, is accused of embezzling the money from Stokes Automotive Inc. while working as the North Charleston-based car dealer between 2005 and February of this year, court documents show. The prosperous auto group has several dealerships in South Carolina and Georgia.

Authorities arrested Chastain late last month in Broward County, Fla., after she flew back into the country to surrender to investigators, North Charleston police Lt. Scott Deckard said. She returned to the Lowcountry last week and was charged with breach of trust with fraudulent intent. She is now free on a $25,000 personal recognizance bond.

Attempts to reach Chastain today were unsuccessful. A man at the James Island duplex where she is staying said Chastain had no interest in speaking with the newspaper.

The modest brick ranch is a decided step down from the 4,800-square-foot home in Park West that Chastain owned while working for Stokes.

She bought that home for close to $1 million five years ago and sold it at a substantial loss in June, county records show. Most of the net proceeds from that $675,000 sale have been pledged to her former employers in connection with a lawsuit Stokes Automotive filed against Chastain in May, according to court records.

Police documents state the stolen money is in excess of $150,000; Stokes’ lawsuit says the loss was at least $490,168. The lawsuit also states the company expects the loss to grow as an audit of accounts continues.

The automotive group’s new controller discovered the alleged theft in March when he went over the books following Chastain’s retirement and move to Central America, a police report stated. He discovered several suspicious checks written from Stokes’ bank account to Chastain’s former boyfriend, her son’s business and the company that held the mortgage on her Mount Pleasant home, police said.

Chastain is accused of forging some of the checks and tricking a company official into signing others, according to an arrest affidavit. She then allegedly took steps to try to hide the checks and wipe them off the books, police said.

By the time the money was discovered missing, Chastain was down in Costa Rica, apparently working for a tourism-related company run by her son. Articles bearing her name appear on the company’s website extolling Costa Rica’s beauty and attractions

It is unclear what prompted Chastain to return to the United States to answer to the charges. William E. Stokes Jr., the auto group’s secretary, filed an affidavit in his company’s lawsuit stating that Chastain had admitted in writing to improperly taking the money.

H. Clayton Walker Jr., attorney for Stokes Automotive, said the company had no comment to offer on the case.

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