ST. GEORGE – An animal shelter volunteer initially arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft on Jan. 13 after she was believed to have stolen approximately $1,000 from P.A.W.S., located at 1125 W. 1130 North in St. George, may now face additional charges after it was discovered the amount she allegedly stole is closer to $10,000.
The St. George Police Department is working closely with the Washington County Attorney’s Office in reviewing the additional evidence in this case to decide what action will be taken and if charges will be amended to reflect the higher dollar amount, St. George Police Sgt. Sam Despain said Thursday.
Erin Leigh Chapman, 32, had been working as the head dog-volunteer at P.A.W.S. (Providing Animals With Support), a nonprofit, no-kill, volunteer animal rescue organization founded in 2002 that rescues animals scheduled to be euthanized due to lack of space at shelters. Chapman had been with the organization since February 2014.
“We suspected our cash flow in December, the amount of cash that was available for deposit, was pretty much nonexistent and we were trying to figure out why,” Lynn Burger, director of operations for the organization, said.
After discovering money was missing, shelter operators put video surveillance into place and placed $30 in the till to see if it would be stolen, St. George Police Officer David McDaniel said in the probable cause statement supporting the arrest. Video surveillance footage showed Chapman using her security code to enter the facility and go to the area where the key to the till was kept.
Police made contact with Chapman at her home where she first denied the accusations and denied that she had been at the business but later admitted to taking the $30, along with “more than $1,000 across multiple incidents” the entire time she had been volunteering at the shelter, McDaniel said in the statement. Chapman also told police that she had been smoking weed every day.
“(Chapman) stated she had money troubles,” McDaniel said, “and was down on her luck.”
Chapman was booked into the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility and charged with a class A misdemeanor for theft before being released on bail.
After Chapman’s arrest, shelter operators discovered Chapman had been taking money in gradually increasing amounts for nearly a year.
“She admitted to taking money for over 11 months,” Burger said, “so we went back and did a full accounting and found that we had about $10,000 missing and unaccounted for in cash.”
Because the shelter mostly operates using cash, Burger said, the missing money and receipts were not immediately noticed.
Other than $20 taken from a donation jar, Burger said the money Chapman stole was not from donations but instead, came from a low-cost pet spay and neuter program available to the public as well as pet adoption fees. She said the missing money is a serious setback for the facility.
“The money was meant to pay vet bills so now we have to take the money that we may have used to take in new animals and use the reserves that we have from our golf tournament,” Burger said. “We have one big fundraiser a year and that’s our golf tournament in October and we save that money. That money has to get us through a lot of the year. We now have to use the money from the golf tournament to cover the bills.”
Burger said Chapman was a trusted volunteer because she was a dog manager and had access to everything.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “I guess the temptation of the money being in the same file cabinet so close to the files, that was our mistake; it should have been in a safe somewhere else. But, you know, we trust people and that’s the mistake we made.”
The shelter has since implemented significant changes, she said, including a change in accounting policies.
“We’ve made changes,” Burger said. “Things are done differently so that this won’t happen again because I don’t want any of the public to lose faith in our organization and not donate to us because of this.”
P.A.W.S. posted the following statement on one of the organization’s Facebooks Tuesday:
PAWS is deeply hurt by the internal theft that occurred here, not just because it sets us back with kitten season right around the corner, or because we feel betrayed by a trusted volunteer, but because we know you have a choice when it comes to where you donate your hard-earned money. We want you to know that we are working within the legal system to get the money back. We are implementing policy changes to prevent internal theft from occurring again, and we are determined to use this situation as a learning experience so that we come out of this a stronger organization than we were before.
Chapman has pleaded not guilty to the theft charge and a bench trial for her original charge is scheduled for March 17.
“She has confessed so I’m not sure how she’s going to go about getting out of it,” Burger said in regards to Chapman’s not guilty plea. “See, she’s the one that told the police about the 11 month period. We probably would have stopped and not gone back and looked because we just went and did an accounting for December thinking that that was when it started. By her telling the police that it was actually 11 months, we went back and realized that she was taking a little bit every month. That is what tipped us off so I don’t really know how she is going to proceed as not guilty.”
For now, Burger said, she is focusing on trying to recoup some of the money that was taken, as the missing money will make it difficult for the shelter to make it through the rest of the year.
For more information, about P.A.W.S. or to make a donation, visit the organization’s website or call 435-688-9748.
Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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