Darren M. Strickland was admired for his community involvement and the support he gave to those living on the margins.
That's why people who know him have found it difficult to reconcile the Darren they knew -- the man who spent 10 years as executive director of Friends of Night People -- with the man sentenced Tuesday to six months in jail. He also was ordered to pay full restitution of the $44,244.03 he admitted stealing from the Allentown soup kitchen.
"This has been a real struggle for everyone," said Ron Smith, Strickland's successor at Friends of Night People. "When most of the community thinks of feeding the hungry, Darren comes to mind. He did a really wonderful job. He was a community leader, and then all of a sudden you discover there's been this monkey business going on, and it's, 'Oh my God, I just can't believe it.' "
Strickland, 41, of Monticello Place, pleaded guilty to third-degree grand larceny May 7 for stealing the funds between October 2001 and December 2005. He faced up to seven years in state prison.
State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang also sentenced him to 4 1/2 years' probation upon release.
Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, said she also is reeling from the inexplicable behavior of a man she has considered a friend for 16 years.
"It's not the person that I know. He was such a well-loved and well-respected individual," Grant said. "I know where his heart is, but I don't know where his mind was at the time."
Prosecutor John C. Doscher said Strickland told authorities he started having financial problems around 2000. His thefts were exposed when a donor called to complain that he never received an acknowledgment after making a $3,000 donation to the organization.
Long active in the community, Strickland lost an election for president of the Buffalo NAACP Branch in 1999. The father of three once headed the Trinidad Neighborhood Association, where he was credited with helping to organize block clubs and involving elected officials in neighborhood concerns.
Smith, of Friends of Night People, said the organization fears a financial fallout if donors conclude their contributions will not be used for intended purposes.
"We hope people will continue to support our activities because the numbers of working poor and the homeless continue to grow on the West Side. Last night we served 240 dinners, and we continue to need the support of the community in order to successfully do that," Smith said.
"Everybody feels betrayed by all this. The donors, the board -- it's very difficult," he added.
Clarence Lott, president of East Side Political Network, said the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Development Consortium, where he worked until recently, helped Strickland get his certification as a truck driver. He said Strickland was recently hired by an Ohio trucking firm after six weeks of training and was to begin his new job when he learned, instead, that he would be going behind bars.
"It's one of those things that's unfortunate, and the remorse he expressed to me was genuine," Lott said. "If I know Darren like I do, he will take his punishment like a man and come back and contribute to his community again."
Grant and Frank Mesiah, the Buffalo NAACP president, who defeated Strickland for the post, both expressed anger that Strickland received the same prison sentence as Maureen Durrell, a former church secretary who was sentenced in State Supreme Court on Monday. Durrell was convicted of stealing more than 10 times the amount Strickland did from St. Christopher Catholic Church in the Town of Tonawanda.
"The mere fact is that one person steals $44,000 and the other $488,000, and the only variable in those two situations is race. If race isn't a factor, then I don't know what is," Messiah said.