OGDENSBURG - After hearing testimony from three witnesses and being presented with three checks that Bobbie Jo Zeller allegedly presented to Monsignor Robert L. Lawler in an effort to repay him, City Court Judge William R. Small ruled Wednesday that there was enough evidence to move forward with the case against Zeller.
Taking the stand at the hearing were Monsignor Lawler, Beth Rockhill, an employee of Community Bank in Potsdam where the checks were said to originate, and State Police BCI Investigator Peter T. Kraengel.
During his testimony the monsignor said he served as the pastor at St. Marys Parish in Waddington for 16 years.
Its a great parish in a beautiful community, he said, noting his first encounter with Zeller came by chance in 2009 or 2010 when a woman stopped by the rectory in need of help.
A lady stopped by the rectory in tears and in need of help, he said.
Monsignor Lawler said it was his understanding she was on her way to Rochester to take her son to the diabetic clinic there. He said he gave her between $100 and $150, which was a gift to her.
He said Zeller made efforts to pay him back that first gift, eventually putting the money in the offering plate to pay him back that way.
About a year would pass before he saw Zeller again, when she returned to the church seeking money from him again, which Monsignor Lawler said he provided in the form of another gift of a similar amount to Zeller.
However, as Zeller continued to ask the monsignor for money, he said she made it clear to him that he would be paid back and he wanted to do what he could to help her.
She told me about herself and some of the difficulties she was facing, he said. She said she wanted to have a good life for her and her son. She seemed to have great love and devotion to her son.
The monsignor said he continued giving her money, usually in the form of cash deposited on a Green Dot pre-paid debit card.
Monsignor Lawler said he continued giving Zeller money through 2012 when he ran out of money and cashed out his retirement account.
I finally ran out of money, he said. I was giving her everything I had coming in.
Monsignor Lawler estimated that he had given Zeller at least $150,000 before he began approaching parishioners for money, collecting what he called in court Wednesday approximately $100,000 on her behalf.
While the monsignor said he wasnt sure exactly how much money he had lent to Zeller, he noted that she was keeping track of the amounts, further indication to him that he would one day be paid back.
She used to keep track of it, he said. She had it right down to the dollar or penny. It was amazing. I took that as a sign she was sincere and wanted to pay me back.
Later that year, Monsignor Lawler said Zeller mentioned something about a letter from the FBI that said the case was coming to a close, meaning she would soon have money to pay him back.
The monsignor said when he initially asked for the letter, Zeller said she couldnt give it to him.
With great reluctance, she said she could make a copy and give it to me, he said.
He recalled the day she gave him a copy of the letter and told him that if it ever got out she gave someone a copy of the letter, the case she was helping them with would be thrown out and she would never get the money needed to pay him back.
She was very nervous, he said. I promised to keep it to myself.
Then came January of 2013, when Zeller heard that the monsignor had an appointment with Investigator Kraengel. That was when she presented him with three checks that Ms. Rockhill would testify were fraudulent documents that did not contain a routing number or account number connected to Community Bank.
The first check she gave me was on the 8th, but dated for the 12th, Monsignor Lawler recalled. I said Bobbie this check is worthless.
After refusing to accept the checks, which were all post-dated, he said Zeller left and returned with checks dated for that day.
I was immediately suspicious, he said.
Zellers attorney, Brian Pilatzke, of the St. Lawrence County Public Defenders office noted there were differences between the monsignors testimony and his statements to police.
However, the monsignor defended his testimony.
Her own estimate was $300,000, he said. Thats proved by the check she gave me.
When Mr. Pilatzke asked if he ever told Zeller how much he was owed, he said he did not.
I just told her I needed to be repaid. Ive been hearing things so long. I need to be repaid, he said.
Mr. Pilatzke then asked when was the first time the monsignor had ever given her more than $1,000.
It happened so many times, I cant remember, he replied.
When Mr. Pilatzke asked if Zeller had ever made any attempts to pay him back, Monsignor Lawler said other than the first time, no.
She never gave me anything, it was the other way around. I was always giving to her. She never gave me anything, he said.
During closing statements Mr. Pilatzke asked for the charges to be dismissed, noting the inconsistencies in the monsignors testimony and his statements to police. He also said in order for the crime of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument charge to stick they needed to prove Zeller knew the checks were fake.
Assistant District Attorney Viacheslav Slava Mareyev acknowledged that while the monsignors testimony may have been vague and at times inconsistent, he also noted that in order for the grand larceny charge to stick they didnt need to account for every last dime, only $3,000 of it which was taken care of by Monsignor Lawlers retirement account.
Mr. Mareyev also noted that Mr. Kraengels testimony proved Zeller knew the checks were fake.
When Mr. Kraengel testified, he spoke about receiving a call from Zeller at about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 8 when she told him the checks would not clear and he would be arresting her soon.
Mr. Pilatzke asked Mr. Kraengel if he called Zeller that day, and while Mr. Kraengel said he couldnt recall if he called her later that day, she is the one who contacted him first.
The testimony I just gave about the conversation, she initiated that, he said.
While Zeller is actually facing eight felony counts, Wednesdays preliminary hearing only addressed four of them, the three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument and one count of the third-degree grand larceny.
Judge Small explained that when Zeller was originally arraigned several of the charges didnt actually fall under his jurisdiction. Mr. Kraengel said those charges, which include first-degree identity theft, fourth-degree grand larceny and two additional counts of third-degree grand larceny, as well as up to four additional petit larceny charges that have yet to been filed, will be filed with the appropriate courts in the near future.
Zeller is charged with scamming, among others, Monsignor Lawler, a now-retired Waddington priest; Rev. James E. LaRue,a now-retired minister from DeKalb Junction; Robert W. and Gloria J. Dietze, a brother and sister from Norwood; and more than 20 parishioners and friends of Monsignor Lawler, who gave him money on her behalf. When totaled the amount of money allegedly received by Zeller under false pretenses totals more than $300,000.
Following the hearing Zeller was returned to the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility, where she remains without bail.