CHELAN — Nearly a year after someone began stealing money from its bank accounts, the Masonic Lodge of Chelan is just starting to get back on its feet.

The fraternal organization was forced to suspend all of its community charitable programs, including student scholarships, a bikes-for-books reading program and even a planned Christmas party for 350 elementary students last December because its money was gone. The group also had to delay paying contractors for a remodel of its lodge that was under way when the money disappeared.

“This was probably the most embarrassing and worst thing that could have happened to us,” said Lodge Master Karl Word.

The Lodge’s former treasurer, Harry P. Himmelhaver, 57, of Brewster, pleaded guilty April 26 in Chelan County Superior Court to five counts of forgery for stealing from the organization’s bank accounts. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

He has repaid $37,000 as part of an agreed settlement with the Masons. But Word said he is believed to have taken as much as $70,000.

Himmelhaver is currently serving his sentence at the Chelan County Regional Justice Center.

In a prepared written statement filed with his guilty plea in court, Himmelhaver admitted he transferred checks from one bank account that he did not have authority to access into an account he could access as treasurer of the organization.

“I then used the majority of those funds for my own purposes,” he wrote. “I have made full restitution to the Masons. I cooperated fully with law enforcement. Even prior to charges being brought, I sent a letter of apology to all parties concerned. I am completely embarrassed by what has occurred and have done everything in my power to make things right.”

Word said Himmelhaver had been treasurer of the organization for about a year when Himmelhaver began taking money from the accounts last June.

Word said the Chelan group typically takes a break during the summer months and reconvenes in the fall. The president typically continues to review monthly bank statements during that time. However, last year, the president was in Texas for most of the summer.

Himmelhaver began transferring money from the Lodge’s money market account into its checking account starting in June, he said. He continued to do it until September. After transferring the money into the checking account, he withdrew money using the Lodge’s debit card at ATMs in Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties, according to court documents.

Word said Himmelhaver made about 100 cash withdrawals from ATMs. He also used the Lodge’s debit card to make purchases for himself.

When the Lodge president returned from Texas, he reviewed a bank statement that showed the Lodge’s money market account, which should have had $48,000, was empty, Word said. The checking account has also been drawn down from $23,000 — which was earmarked for the remodel and student scholarships — to about $800, he said.

In a statement to Chelan County sheriff’s investigators last October, Himmelhaver admitted to taking money from the accounts and said he used it to gamble at Mill Bay Casino in Manson and the Okanogan Bingo Casino in Okanogan, court documents state. He also admitted to buying items for himself.

Word said the Lodge had already chosen five recipients for $1,000 school scholarships last fall, but could not award the money because it was gone. It also could not buy bikes for a program that rewards children in schools and through the public library for reading.

The “most gut-wrenching part of the whole deal” was having to cancel the planned Christmas party for all second-graders in the Lake Chelan School District, he said. The Lodge had already committed to buying pizzas, handing out presents to all the children and having a Santa.

“This (theft) just devastated us,” he said. “Helping the community, that’s where our hearts are. We try to do so much for the community and it really hurts not to be able to do that.”

With the settlement money from Himmelhaver, “We’re just now getting back on track and starting to do things in the community again,” he added.

Michelle McNiel: 664-7152