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Norfolk woman charged with scamming priest out of life savings

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WADDINGTON - After more than two weeks on the run, Bobbie Jo Zeller was taken into custody by state police at a Malone motel Thursday morning and charged in connection with an alleged scam that netted more than $300,000.

She is accused of fabricating hard-luck stories to prey on the charitable nature of a retired Roman Catholic priest, his parishoners, and numerous other community members.

Zeller, 36, of 72 West Main St., Apt. 4, Norfolk, was charged with three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, first-degree identity theft, three counts of third-degree grand larceny and one count of fourth-degree grand larceny. Among the alleged scam’s victims were the Rev. Monsignor Robert L. Lawler.

According to court documents, Monsignor Lawler gave Zeller his life savings, then solicited money from parishioners and acquaintances. A Norwood couple, Gloria J. and Robert W. Dietze, provided Zeller with more than $30,000 of their own money.

A Helping Hand

Monsignor Lawler, who at the time was the priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Waddington and St. John’s Catholic Church in Madrid told police he had believed he was helping Zeller, who had allegedly fed him a variety of tales about why she needed money.

“When I initially gave my deposition to the state police, I did not think that Bobbie Jo was trying to scam me out of money,” he said in a second statement. “I now see that Bobbie Jo lied to me in order to steal money from me and the people who wanted to help her through her so-called hardships by giving me money to give to her.”

Monsignor Lawler said he should have realized it much sooner.

“I should have known this was suspicious when she told me things like the U.S. Treasury Department and a judge were coordinating the transfer of money from the treasury department to my checking account,” he said in his deposition.

In his statement Monsignor Lawler named several people who had given him money that was later turned over to Zeller. That list included William Tiernan, Joseph Tiernan, Ed Sharlow, Carol LaDue, Thomas Nelson, John and Dee Cardoza, Jack Backus, Betty Bernhard, Charles W. Kelly, the Rev. Jim Shurtleff and Bishop Terry LaValley, “as well as others whose names I do not recall at this time.”

State police Investigator Peter T. Kraengel said the exact number of victims is unknown, but he said there were “at least 20” people who had given Monsignor Lawler money to assist Zeller.

“It’s really appalling that someone would blatantly stoop to the lowest level possible to rip off a priest.” Mr. Kraengel said.

Mr. Kraengel said it is his belief that the alleged scam began as a simple one, but grew more complicated as Zeller continually came up with reasons she needed money, some he classified as “really outrageous stories.”

“Bobbie Jo constantly came to me for money,” Monsignor Lawler said in his statement. “She told me she needed money to pay fines or she would be put in jail and she needed medicine for her son and if she doesn’t get it Child Protective Services would take her son away from her. She also referred to a ‘case’ of some sort that she was helping an unknown law enforcement agency with. She would say she needed money from me and she would pay me back when the case was closed, but that I could not tell anyone about this and I had to keep giving her money, otherwise it jeopardize the case and I might not get my money back.”

Charitable Nature

Despite those far-fetched tales, Monsignor Lawler truly believed he was helping Zeller, diocese officials said.

“The monsignor’s whole life was dedicated to helping care for people in need,’ said the Rev. Kevin J. O’Brien, a colleague who serves as the Diocese of Ogdensburg’s episcopal vicar. “He was the director of Catholic Charities for 30 years.”

Mr. Kraengel said it’s easy to understand why so many people were involved.

“If my parish priest came to me and asked for help. I would say, ‘What do you need?’” he said.

A Realization Dawns

Monsignor Lawler said he didn’t realize he was being scammed until Jan. 8, when Zeller attempted to pay him back. He had just said Mass at St. Joseph’s Nursing Home, Ogdensburg, when Zeller presented him with three checks.

“These checks were in the amount of $300,000 payable to me, $25,000 payable to me and a third check in the amount of $6,800 made payable to card services,” he said. “When she gave me these checks, she explained they were dated Jan. 12, 2013 because the money would not be available until Jan. 12, 2013. She said this would be payment for all the money I provided her over the last couple of years that she’d pay me back. The check for $25,000 was to repay June McQueeney and the check for $6,800 was to repay the charges she incurred on June McQueeney’s credit card.”

Monsignor Lawler said he was immediately suspicious of the checks.

“I questioned Bobbie Jo as to the post-dating of the checks, which appeared to be computer generated bank checks. I asked why the bank would issue post-dated checks, especially when there is not enough money in the account to cover it,” he said. “Bobbie Jo replied that the person at the bank who wrote the checks for her was instructed by a judge to write the checks and post-date them. She said I could not call the bank because they wouldn’t talk about it, and they would deny having post-dated checks.”

Monsignor Lawler said he was unwilling to accept the post-dated checks.

“I told her this was unacceptable and she said she would get the checks made out for today. I returned the checks to her and she left,” he said

He said she returned to the nursing home several hours later with new checks.

“The only difference between the checks she presented me with this morning and the checks she presented me with in the afternoon was the date,” he said. “I accepted the checks and she left.”

At that point Monsignor Lawler said he contacted Rev. O’Brien, who reached out to Community Bank in Potsdam, where the checks were said to have originated.

Community Bank confirmed Monsignor Lawler’s suspicions.

In all, Monsignor Lawler told police, he gave her $273,000 — $145,000 from his retirement fund, personal savings, gifts, social security and two years’ salary; $28,000 from parish funds; and $100,000 from contributions from others he had solicited on Zeller’s behalf.

Charges Brought

The three criminal possession of a forged instrument charges against Zeller stem from each of the three checks she allegedly presented Monsignor Lawler. The identify theft charge stemmed from Zeller’s alleged use of Mrs. McQueeney’s credit card over the phone, for what Mrs. McQueeney believed was medicine for her son.

The third-degree grand larceny charges stem from incidents in June 2011 and April 2012 when she received $27,000 from Mr. Dietze, incidents in August 2011 and September 2012 when she received $3,090 from Mrs. Dietze and the ongoing instances from fall of 2010 through January 2013 when she received nearly $300,000 from Monsignor Lawler, members of his parishes, acquaintances and fellow clergymen.

The fourth-degree grand larceny charge stems from two other instances when she received $1,600 from Mrs. McQueeney.

Zeller was arraigned before Ogdensburg City Court Judge William R. Small and sent to St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility without bail. The court was unable to set bail since Zeller has two prior felony convictions. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.

A Checkered past

Zeller, who has a lengthy criminal record, has a history of similar arrests. She was convicted in 2001 and 2005 in St. Lawrence County Court of first-degree scheming to defraud. She was sentenced to serve two to four years in state prison for her felony conviction in 2005.

She was released from custody in June 2009 after completing six months in the Willard substance abuse treatment program, serving the remainder of her sentence under parole supervision.

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