Church child care center closes amidst fraud claims against pastor

11:24 PM, Feb 14, 2013   |    comments
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After allegations of theft against a former Gatlinburg church pastor, the church's day care center shut its doors Thursday.

Former pastor of Gatlinburg Presbyterian Church, Ronald Lukat, has not been charged with a crime. But a police report shows he admitted to officers that he did not pay state or federal taxes on the daycare.

The church said that's upwards of $40,000. He also confessed to using the daycare's business credit card for personal use. The church said he charged $3,600. The report shows Lukat said the amount was less. He also told officers he didn't pay the taxes because the daycare was in poor financial shape.

Thursday, the child care center threw the children a party as a way to say goodbye. While many of the children are too young to know what was going on, the staff and parents couldn't hold back the tears.

"It's really, really, really hard because he's so happy and I want the best for him. And I know that they take such good care of him," said mom Gina Viviana about her 2-year-old son Brayden.

Since her son was six weeks old, Viviana has trusted Director Melody Huddleston with her baby.

"When I'm not there for him she's like his other mother... he loves her. He loves coming here," said Viviano.

"Some of these kids I've taken care of since they were infants. Rocked them to sleep and fed them and taken care of them when they were sick and teething," said Huddleston.

Now Huddleston and her staff of four have to look for a new place to operate.

Huddleston ran into problems with daycare's credit card starting in September.

"I would get to the register and the card kept getting declined," Huddleston said.

That launched an internal investigation by the church elders.

"Once Pandora's box was opened lots of other things started to come to light and it was a lot more significant than what was initially thought," said church elder, William Ball, who also serves as VP of the board of directors for the daycare.

Ball says the closure is a permanent one. But Huddleston plans to open a new daycare that is already in the works. She says it may take a while.

"I know that I'll see them [the kids] again but knowing that I'm not going to see them everyday that's the hardest part," Huddleston said.

The church says they keep finding more bills-- and worry their financial problems could be much worse than expected.

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