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Woman allegedly scammed priest, others out of $300,000

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After two weeks on the run, Bobbie Jo Zeller was apprehended by state police Thursday in Malone and charged in an alleged scam of more than $300,000.

A convicted felon with a record of fraud charges, she is accused of fabricating hard-luck stories to prey on the charitable nature of a retired Roman Catholic priest, his parishioners and numerous other community members from the fall of 2010 until January of this year.

“It’s really appalling that someone would blatantly stoop to the lowest level possible to rip off a priest,” state police Investigator Peter T. Kraengel said.

Ms. Zeller, 36, of 72 W. 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. State police had announced April 19 that they were looking for her as the suspect in the alleged scam. She was found Thursday morning at a hotel in Malone.

She was arraigned before Ogdensburg City Judge William R. Small and sent to St. Lawrence County jail, Canton, without bail. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Among the alleged victims is Monsignor Robert L. Lawler, a retired Waddington priest. According to court documents, Monsignor Lawler gave Ms. Zeller his life savings, worth more than $100,000, then solicited money from parishioners and acquaintances, including a Norwood couple, Gloria J. and Robert W. Dietze, who contributed more than $30,000 of their own money.

Monsignor Lawler told police he believed he was helping Ms. Zeller, but should have realized sooner that the hardship stories were a scam.

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

In his statement, Monsignor Lawler named several people, including Bishop Terry R. LaValley, who had given him money that was turned over to Ms. Zeller. The list also includes William Tiernan, Joseph Tiernan, Ed Sharlow, Carol LaDue, Thomas Nelson, John and Dee Cardoza, Jack Backus, Betty Bernhard, Charles Kelly, the Rev. F. James Shurtleff, “as well as others whose names I do not recall.”

Mr. Kraengel said that the number of victims is unknown, but that “at least 20” had given Monsignor Lawler money to assist Ms. Zeller.

He said he believes the alleged scam began simply, but grew more complicated as Ms. Zeller kept coming up with “really outrageous stories” why she needed money.

“Bobbie Jo constantly came to me for money,” Monsignor Lawler said in his statement to police. “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 (would) jeopardize the case and I might not get my money back.”

Yet Monsignor Lawler truly believed he was helping her, others 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.

Monsignor Lawler said he didn’t suspect a scam until Jan. 8, when Ms. Zeller presented him with three checks, purportedly to pay him back. The documents were made to appear as computer-generated checks drawn from Community Bank, Potsdam.

“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 questioned the validity of the checks and refused to accept them. Ms. Zeller returned later that day with checks that looked the same, but with the date changed. He took them and contacted Father O’Brien, and Community Bank confirmed that the checks were fake.

In all, Monsignor Lawler told police, he gave Ms. Zeller $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 her behalf.

The three forged-instrument charges relate to the checks. The identify theft charge pertains to Ms. 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 when she received more than $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.

Ms. Zeller has a lengthy criminal record. She was convicted in 2001 and 2005 in St. Lawrence County Court of first-degree scheming to defraud. She was sentenced to 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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