Former Stokes employee accused of embezzlement

Charity Chastain

Charity Chastain seemed in reach of an ideal lifestyle this spring when she took an early retirement, sold her Mount Pleasant home and jetted off to spend her days in sun-splashed Costa Rica.

The problem, authorities said, is that she did it with someone else's money.

Chastain, 56, is accused of embezzling about a half-million dollars from Stokes Automotive Inc. while working as the North-Charleston-based car dealer's chief financial officer 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 on Thursday 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 that the stolen money is in excess of $150,000; Stokes' lawsuit says the loss was at least $490,168. The lawsuit also states that 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 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.

Chastain has applied for a public defender, but none has been assigned.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5.