Angora worker stole more than $16,000 in relief, court records allege
August 7, 2009
More than $16,000 was allegedly embezzled from money designated for victims of the Angora fire by a former American Red Cross employee arrested Thursday, according to a criminal complaint filed in El Dorado County Superior Court.
Texas police arrested Stephen Hellman without incident Thursday in Manor, Texas, said Bob Cosley, a supervising investigator with the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office.
In the criminal complaint, prosecutors charge Hellman with one count of embezzlement and 11 counts of grand theft embezzlement for allegedly taking $16,574 from Red Cross funds for Angora fire victims between Sept. 16, 2008, and Dec. 22, 2008. I
If convicted, Hellman could face up to a year in state prison for each count in the complaint, according to the California penal code.
Hellman served as the Tahoe area preparedness and response manager for the Sacramento Sierra Chapter of the Red Cross between September 2007 and January 2009, said Carole Evans, interim chapter CEO.
The alleged theft was uncovered during a January audit of Angora fire client assistance records, Evans said.
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Enough improprieties were discovered during the audit to indicate possible wrongdoing and the disaster relief agency turned the information over to the district attorney’s office for further investigation, Evans said.
Since discovery of the alleged thefts, Red Cross emergency services personnel have been reminded about the importance of using proper review procedures, Evans said.
The Red Cross takes stewardship of donations “very seriously” and the alleged theft has not prevented Angora fire victims from collecting full Red Cross benefits, Evans said.
“I’m angry about what happened and I’m disheartened, but heartened by the fact we found it,” Evans said.
Hellman resigned in January prior to discovery of the alleged discrepancies and accepted a position working in emergency response for the state of Texas, Evans said.
A background check on Hellman prior to his appointment as the Tahoe area preparedness and response manager came back clean, Evans said.
“There was no reason to believe that there was anything in John’s background that would have tipped us to this,” Evans said.
Hellman was replaced in January by longtime Tahoe Vista resident and five-year Red Cross veteran Lynn Felsch. Felsch declined comment on Hellman, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation surrounding Hellman.
Although allegations involving fraud don’t always cause the same visceral reaction from victims as violent crimes, they can be just as devastating, Cosley said.
“It’s just kind of horrific in a way,” said Cosley. “You deal with all of the violent crimes and sometimes these crimes get forgotten about, but they affect people the same way because you have these crooks that are selecting vulnerable people.”
Both Evans and Cosley said they couldn’t speculate on a possible motive for the alleged thefts.
Like most consumer fraud cases in El Dorado County, Hellman’s case is expected to be heard in Placerville, Cosley said. Hellman is being held in Texas pending extradition, according to a statement released Thursday by the district attorney’s office.
“Hopefully we’ll have him out here by next week,” Cosley said.