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Photos caught principal stealing: Police release pictures of Kenmore East theft; Ostanski pleads guilty

For months, Town of Tonawanda police have said the proof that former Kenmore East High School Principal LuAnn E. Ostanski stole money from her school was in the photos.

Wednesday, the reason they said that became as clear as the photos themselves.

Shortly after Ostanski pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and agreed to pay a fine, Town of Tonawanda police granted The Buffalo News' long-standing request to release the photos that sealed the case against her.

The first photo shows Ostanski in a black hoodie, with latex gloves on her hands, reaching into a white envelope pulled from the school safe.

In the next picture, taken a minute and 13 seconds later, she is seen in profile, reaching into a cash bag.

"The evidence was overwhelming. Without those photos, we would have had nothing," said Detective Lt. James S. Szabo. "They were what got the ball rolling."

Ostanski pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempted petit larceny, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to a conditional discharge, which requires that she continue receiving counseling, and a $500 fine.

A somber Ostanski, her eyes downcast for most of the proceeding, offered brief, often barely audible answers to the judge's routine questions.

Her attorney, Kevin W. Spitler, appealed to the judge for leniency, citing her long career as a teacher and school administrator and her lack of a criminal record.

Ostanski, 54, has already paid for her crimes, Spitler said.

"She has suffered greatly. She's embarrassed for her husband, her children," the defense attorney said. "She lost a good-paying job. She's going to lose her certification as a school administrator. She has suffered terrible public ridicule."

Prosecutor Michael Drmacich, in outlining to the judge the reasons for the plea deal, noted Ostanski's clean criminal record and her confession. But other factors were important, too, he said.

"This is kind of a unique situation," he said. "She was in a position of public trust, being a school principal. And she did violate that trust by attempting to steal money from the fund-raising efforts of the kids at the school."

Ostanski's arrest followed two years of rumors that money was disappearing from the school safe.

"There had been a few reports over the years," Szabo said. "Nothing was ever substantiated because the principal didn't want to pursue it."

Suspicion hovered over one employee, the only person believed to have a key to access the cash in the safe. Fearing she would be blamed for something she didn't do, the employee -- who has never been identified by police or school officials -- planted a digital camera inside a notebook in the main office, focused on the safe.

The camera, the type used by hunters to locate animals, snapped scores of pictures over a number of days. The last weekend in March, two frames clearly captured Ostanski.

Unaware of the camera, Ostanski reported to the school resource officer that $160 was missing from the safe. The case was turned over to detectives, who had the incriminating photos in hand before they talked to the principal.

During the first interview, in her office at the school, Ostanski denied knowing anything about how the money disappeared.

In the next interview, at Police Headquarters on Sheridan Drive, she once again denied knowing anything.

That's when detectives showed her the two pictures.

Immediately, Ostanski confessed. She admitted taking money from the safe half a dozen times over two years but said she took no more than $1,000 total. Within a week, she repaid the money and resigned as Kenmore East principal.

She was charged with petit larceny and criminal possession of stolen property for having unauthorized keys to the safe.

Her attorney had asked for a court hearing Wednesday, when he planned to ask Town Justice J. Mark Gruber to suppress Ostanski's confession, as well as the photographs. Minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin, a TV in the courtroom was set up to play a DVD of her 15-minute confession.

But that DVD never played; last-minute negotiations with the prosecutor resulted in a plea deal.

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