FARMINGTON — Mary O’Donal looked away as her former colleagues at the Care and Share Food Closet posed questions to her Thursday morning and spoke of the harm she had done to the more than 500 families that rely on the food pantry.
“Where did it all start?” asked Jerry Allen, the pantry’s co-director. “Do you still have that money hidden somewhere?”
“The equivalent of over 61,200 baskets of food,” executive director Leiza Hiltz Scerbo said. “Stolen over all these years, that could have been given out to the community.”
“We know it’s between you and God in the end to make it right,” Allen said.
O’Donal, 74, was sentenced Thursday in Franklin County Superior Court to three years in prison, with all but 30 days suspended, and three years of probation after pleading guilty last month to stealing more than $10,000 from Care and Share over the more than three decades she worked as the pantry’s treasurer. O’Donal did not contest the state’s estimate that the theft totaled at least $306,000.
As part of a plea agreement, O’Donal must pay $291,000 in restitution to the pantry. She already has repaid $15,000 and handed over the deed for her house, assessed in 2016 at $48,250, to the organization. She and her husband may continue living in the home in the meantime.
Under the agreement, O’Donal also is prohibited from going to the Care and Share Food Closet or working or volunteering in any financial capacity for any nonprofit institution.
O’Donal did not speak at Thursday’s hearing but delivered a short statement through her attorney, Christopher S. Berryment.
“I apologize for all the problems I’ve caused,” the statement read. “I am not a bad person. I did a very bad thing. I have hurt people that do not deserve to be hurt and for that I am sorry.”
Before imposing the sentence — which had been recommended by the prosecution and defense and agreed to by Care and Share’s staff — Justice Robert Mullen said he could understand that others might perceive O’Donal’s punishment as “on the light side” for the crime she had committed.
Addressing O’Donal, Mullen said, “the only reason I am accepting this plea agreement is because the victim in this case is not seeking a jail sentence at all for you and because you have made some restitution here and have agreed to turn over your house to the victim, and convinced your husband to agree to that as well.”
Mullen said he would not have been able to order O’Donal to deed her house to the pantry.
“I don’t want the citizens of this county, indeed this state, to get the impression that it’s OK to steal as long as you agree to make restitution if you get caught,” Mullen continued. “Instead, I want you to get the message loud and clear that I am accepting this plea agreement while figuratively, if not literally, holding my nose.”
Hiltz Scerbo said she and her colleagues went along with the plea agreement in the hope that O’Donal will start repaying the pantry sooner.
“She can’t earn any money to pay us back if she’s sitting in jail. And with the short amount of time she may have to start paying us, it makes no sense to lose any of that time right now,” she said. “That and the charity that we both feel towards anyone that has to go through something like this.”
O’Donal’s theft first came to light after Hiltz Scerbo became the food pantry’s executive director in January 2015 and immediately set up teams of volunteers to cover each area of the organization’s work so one person’s illness or lack of availability would not interrupt the pantry’s mission of providing food five days a week to 500 needy families in the Farmington area. The pantry relies heavily on donations and volunteer labor.
She previously said she had approached O’Donal with the intention of sharing the burden that O’Donal had shouldered for decades as the treasurer and sole financial arbiter for the organization. But O’Donal resisted the oversight, and as Hiltz Scerbo and a team of volunteers analyzed Care and Share’s finances, matching checks cashed to invoices, they started finding unmatched checks for $1,000 or $2,000 for nearly every month dating back to 2001.
However, the pantry’s checking account was in O’Donal’s name and only she has access to it. O’Donal closed the account before stepping down. After three months of scouring records, Hiltz Scerbo turned the documents over to Farmington police, who she said worked with the pantry’s bank to track checks back to the 1970s. They found that for almost every month dating back more than three decades, O’Donal had been writing checks to herself and cashing them, stealing more than $300,000 in total.
“Everybody trusted her,” Hiltz Scerbo said after last month’s plea hearing, adding that the organization’s volunteers were “heartbroken.”
Hiltz Scerbo worried that donors and volunteers would lose faith in Care and Share after the theft, but she and Allen reported Thursday that donations were actually up in 2016. They have not lost volunteers and still are hoping to attract more in the future.
Allen said in accepting the agreement they also recognized that O’Donal was the primary caretaker for her husband, who he said has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“We didn’t feel right by punishing her and him,” Allen said. “If she’s out of jail, she can tend to him and get her Social Security so she can pay back whatever she’s ordered to.”
After the hearing, O’Donal was led away, returning again in handcuffs. Her friends and family gone, the 74-year-old sat alone in an emptying courtroom, waiting to begin her jail sentence.
Kate McCormick — 861-9218