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Zeller starts trial in priest scam case

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CANTON — The Norfolk woman accused of scamming multiple north country residents out of a total of more than $300,000 will be headed to the first of what is expected to be several trials today after turning down a final plea offer on Friday in St. Lawrence County Court.

Bobbie Jo Zeller, 37, of 72 W. Main St., is facing charges of two counts of third-degree grand larceny, class D felonies. It is alleged that between August 2011 and September 2012 Ms. Zeller cajoled Gloria J. Dietze, of Potsdam, into giving her more than $3,000 with stories of a sick son and problems paying her bills.

The first count of grand larceny is for borrowing the money under false pretenses; the second count is for borrowing the money using a false promise that she intended to pay the money back, Ms. Zeller’s attorney Brian D. Pilatzke said.

Ms. Zeller, who has been held in St. Lawrence County jail since May 2, turned down a deal offered to her by Special Prosecutor Nicole M. Duve that would have allowed her to plead guilty to three counts of grand larceny. She would have been sentenced to a maximum of 16 years in prison.

County Judge Jerome J. Richards said the plea deal commitment for an indeterminate prison sentence of six to 12 years was increased Friday to eight to 16 years in the new offer because Ms. Dietze’s case would have been included.

The previous plea deal would have covered the allegations that Ms. Zeller stole more than $300,000 from the late Monsignor Robert L. Lawler and parishioner June H. McQueeney, of Waddington, also “by false pretense” and “by false promise” between fall 2010 and January 2013.

Ms. Zeller is being charged with two counts of second-degree grand larceny, two counts of third-degree grand larceny and one count of first-degree scheme to defraud in that case. A trial is pending Ms. Duve’s appeal of Judge Richards’s Sept. 24 dismissal of three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument that were brought against Ms. Zeller based on “lack of legally sufficient evidence.”

Judge Richards said during her time in court Friday, Ms. Zeller also wrote him a more than two-page letter dated March 24 requesting a new attorney.

In her letter, Ms. Zeller told Judge Richards that she didn’t think Mr. Pilatzke had contacted her as frequently as she would have liked, the judge said in court.

Judge Richards told Ms. Zeller that since she was assigned counsel and was not paying for it, she didn’t have the opportunity to “pick and choose” unless there was a legitimate conflict and that Mr. Pilatzke was not “at your beck and call.”

“Mr. Pilatzke has prepared this case and he said he is ready for trial,” Judge Richards said. “Even if you were to hire a new attorney, I likely would not have allowed it. It would only delay the trial further. Your application for new counsel is denied.”

The trial will follow a bevy of motions and hearings expected in the case against Ms. Zeller.

If convicted after this first trial, Ms. Zeller faces a maximum of 3 to 7 years in prison.

She was returned to St. Lawrence County jail with bail set at $150,000 cash or $300,000 bond.

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