WATERVILLE — Lisa Carbonneau’s story seemed genuine enough when she approached the Maine Children’s Home for help.
She desperately needed Christmas presents for her four children — her husband had died, her house was damaged in a major fire and she had no money, she said.
The home had already completed its annual charitable Christmas program, which gives gifts and clothing to more than 1,700 needy Maine children, but program officials noted Carbonneau’s desperation and decided to help.
But upon further inspection, something about her plea didn’t seem quite right.
A children’s home employee looked Carbonneau up on Facebook and her suspicions were confirmed.
“Lo and behold, her husband’s not dead and they did have a house fire but it was back in 2010 and she doesn’t have four children,” said Steve Mayberry, development director for the Children’s Home.
Carbonneau, 35, of Jay, had stood to get a big box of children’s toys and clothing from the Maine Children’s Home worth between $90 and $100 — the standard assistance package for truly needy children around the state.
Instead, police were notified and when Carbonneau arrived Friday morning at the Maine Children’s Home on Silver Street to pick up her box, police Officer Damon Lefferts was there to arrest her.
“He came and took her out in handcuffs,” Mayberry recalled Monday. “We’ve never had a client leave in handcuffs before.”
The holidays are a time when many people are generous and charities work hard to make sure needy children and families have a happy Christmas.
There are also people who take advantage, according to police.
Waterville Deputy Chief Charles Rumsey said that Carbonneau’s husband — definitely alive — accompanied her to the Children’s Home Friday to get the gifts. She was arrested on a warrant and charged with theft by deception and violation of conditions of release for theft cases in the Lewiston and Portland areas. Carbonneau, Rumsey said, has a long criminal record dating back to 1997 that includes convictions for theft, burglary, negotiating a worthless instrument, drug theft, misuse of credit identification, disorderly conduct, failing to report to jail and theft by deception.
Carbonneau was taken to Kennebec County jail in Augusta and released on Monday. She is scheduled to appear in Kennebec County Superior Court Jan. 14. She could not be reached for comment.
Mayberry, of the Children’s Home, said Carbonneau has two children and two grandchildren, but the charity does not authorize grandparents to apply for children’s gifts. Parents or guardians request the assistance and must prove income eligibility to receive it, according to Mayberry.
The children’s home needs about $250,000 worth of donations of toys, clothing and money for the program and more than 300 volunteers help box them up and move them.
People who try to get assistance from two different charities are told they can’t.
“We cross reference,” Mayberry said. “We catch maybe a half dozen double-dippers a year.”
Meanwhile, Rumsey said Carbonneau had posted messages on her Facebook page talking about her family’s new 60-inch television and saying a lot of her Christmas shopping was done.
“I think Officer Lefferts did a great job in getting the information from the Maine Children’s Home, researching and finding out about Carbonneau’s history and background and taking the initiative to track her down and charging her with the crime she committed,” Rumsey said. “I also think it’s fairly sad in this day and age when there are a lot of people in need and nonprofit agencies are out there trying to help them, with scarce resources, that for someone like this to try to take advantage of an agency like the Maine Children’s Home, I find it to be very distasteful.”
Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey said he assumes most charities have internal mechanisms for screening recipients, but asking general questions and verifying information is important.
He said that probably the biggest red flag for him is when a person does not give credible information about how he or she can be contacted.
“If they are evasive around questions about being able to get back to them, I would be very reluctant because there might be a good reason why,” Massey said.
Likewise, the Maine attorney general’s office advises asking a lot of questions.
“The first rule is, just do what you can to verify somebody’s story,” said Tim Feeley, attorney general spokesman.
People are within their rights to ask questions, he said.
“And if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is and they’re well-advised to ask a few more questions,” he said.
This holiday season, Waterville police have dealt with many reports of shoplifting, including one last week in which a man walked out of Kmart with a shopping cart containing about $450 worth of toys.
When he was approached by store employees, the man ran across Main Street to his car at Caswell’s Liquidation Center on Armory Road and drove off toward College Avenue, according to police.
Rumsey said Monday that police are continuing to investigate.
He said police anyone who has information about the case should call police at 680-4700.