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BLINDSIDED BY A BETRAYAL OF TRUST <br> EMBEZZLING, ONCE THE REALM OF CORPORATE SWINDLERS, HAS COME TO THE CHURCH NEXT DOOR

One was a Catholic school business manager who redirected tuition payments into her personal bank accounts.

Another was a longtime bookkeeper who pocketed more than $200,000 from the Boy Scouts to pay for a family car and tuition bills.

Still another was an ordained deacon who stole thousands of dollars from the church's food pantry for the poor.

When people think embezzlement and fraud, they may conjure up images of slick, smooth-talking insiders using double ledgers to siphon money from corporate trust funds.

But the truth is, more and more embezzlers resemble ordinary people, who rip off children and churchgoers by pocketing checks and dollar bills laid out by unsuspecting parents and parishioners.

The Erie County district attorney's office has prosecuted eight cases since 2003 -- six this year alone -- in which embezzlers have collectively stolen roughly $1 million from churches, day cares, schools and youth groups in the Buffalo area.

Six of these cases involved women.

Three involved sums of money exceeding $100,000.

And all, prosecutors said, came as big surprises to the schools, churches, and organizations where they happened.

"Those organizations seem to have an almost child-like trust in the people they allow to handle their resources," said District Attorney Frank Clark. "They seem to have a penchant for having one person handling all of the assets."

For Clark's office, that means an increase in the number of nonprofit and charity embezzlement cases they've seen recently, as well as a huge leap in the amounts of money being stolen from these trusting organizations.

When bill collectors came after Renee P. Kippley, she turned to the church.

Hired as the child care center director for St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Grand Island in October 2001, Kippley quickly began siphoning money from the day care's reserve accounts and making up false financial statements to cover her tracks, church leaders said.

She also used the church's good name to open up a line of credit with the bank. She maxed the account and used the day care's Sam's Club card to fill her own refrigerator with everything from sirloin tips to shrimp platters, said Richard Planavsky, church council president.

Kippley pleaded guilty to grand larceny this month after investigators discovered she had embezzled roughly $40,000 from the church.

When the discovery was made, Planavsky said, he was tapped to deliver the bad news to the church's faithful.

"It was one of the toughest things I had to do," he said, "to look in the eyes of the parishioners and tell them that."

Kippley is scheduled for sentencing in December.

But while the Kippley case is one of the area's more recent, it is far from the biggest.

The following scammers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars and pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny:

Marie Wendel, business manager for Kolbe Catholic School in Cheektowaga, who embezzled $332,000 in parent fees.

Bernadette Lucas, a church day care director who pocketed $235,000 from Grace United Church of Christ in Buffalo.

Kathleen Maeder, a Lancaster bookkeeper for the Greater Niagara Frontier Council of the Boy Scouts, pleaded guilty to taking $207,000 from the Scouts' store in Cheektowaga.

Prosecutors have totaled thefts of roughly $900,000 based on what they can prove was embezzled in these and other recent cases.

In reality, however, the losses to these charities and nonprofit groups more likely extend well beyond the $1 million mark, they said.

In addition, Clark's office is in the midst of investigating another $1 million in potential losses stemming from more than half a dozen similar cases.

While some cases involve giant sums, most involve lesser amounts of money.

John C. Doscher, chief of the district attorney's White-Collar Crime Bureau, and financial crimes prosecutor Candace K. Vogel offer a lengthy list of cases prosecuted since 2003 that resulted in guilty pleas.

There are Susan Ellis, a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hamburg, who took $7,000 from the church's food pantry, and Gail Tachok, a City Honors art teacher and adviser who stole $35,000 from her senior class.

There are John A. DiTallo Jr., a fund-raiser who pocketed $22,000 from the Hasek's Heroes hockey program for underprivileged youth, and Jason A. Matthews, a janitor for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Kenmore, who ripped off $14,000 from Sunday collections.

So what happens to all that money?

While some might speculate that most of these frauds were done by desperate people trying to cover gambling debts, drug habits or unpaid medical bills, Clark squashed such notions.

"Where most of it seems to go is toward a lavish lifestyle," he said.

That may translate into a better car, nice vacations or a well-appointed home.

"There just seems to be this pervasive greed out there that everybody has to have everything they want right away," Clark said. "And if their job or family situation doesn't provide the means, they justify to themselves that they can just go out and take it."

Clark estimated that these cases amount to roughly a fifth of all embezzlement cases his office handles. Many of these embezzlers never total up how much they take through their routine acts of fraud and are shocked to discover how much they've skimmed from an organization over time, he added.

There's a lesson here, Clark said.

"Don't trust anybody -- I don't care who it is," he said. "The bottom line is charitiable organizations, churches, schools, or whatever it is, need to act more like a Las Vegas casino when it comes to following where the money goes."

The church leaders at St. Timothy's have learned that lesson the hard way.

They've now instituted a double-signature check-signing system and given financial oversight of the day care center to an administrative board that reports directly to the church council.

Church leaders also worked hard to rebuild trust in the child care center, which serves more than 60 children and is one of the church's primary forms of community outreach, Planavsky said.

Down a hallway lined with open cubbies and plastic bins filled with small coats, diapers and "nap things," infants and toddlers from all ends of the community wandered around the blocks, puzzles and child-sized chalkboard tables and kitchenettes.

The center is running at full capacity and maintains a healthy waiting list, said Planavsky, whose own grandson is still awaiting a spot.

"Right now, we've probably had the closest relationship we've ever had with the day care center," he said. "The day care center has never been better."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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