WHEELING - The Ohio County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' former treasurer will serve two years probation after pleading guilty to embezzling thousands of dollars from the organization between 2009 and 2011.
Mary Ellison, 63, of Bridgeport, appeared in court Friday to enter the plea before Magistrate Charles Murphy. According to her agreement with the Ohio County Prosecutor's Office, Murphy dismissed a felony embezzlement charge against Ellison, instead allowing her to plead guilty to misdemeanor embezzlement.
Murphy sentenced Ellison to one year in jail, but suspended that sentence in lieu of two years probation. The original felony charge against her would have carried a one-to-10 year prison sentence.
Assistant Prosecutor Shawn Turak said Ellison had completed her restitution obligations under the agreement in advance of Friday's hearing.
"Originally, half had been paid, and today, $8,500 was paid" to the organization, she said.
Murphy told Ellison she is free to travel as she wishes while on probation, but is barred from having any contact whatsoever with the SPCA. He asked her whether she is employed, and Ellison replied that she is.
According to a police report, Ellison wrote checks to herself from the SPCA's bank account and concealed her activities by altering bank statements to make it appear the checks had been written to legitimate vendors. In all, she cashed 10 checks worth a total of $14,360.
Ellison reportedly resigned her position May 10 after board members confronted her about the missing money, and subsequently deposited two checks worth $3,500 each into the organization's account.
Following an internal audit, the organization reported the matter to the Ohio County Sheriff's Department.
Ellison reportedly admitted to stealing money during an interview with Lt. Joseph Cuchta. Deputies obtained a warrant for her arrest July 19 and arrested her Aug. 2.
Following Friday's hearing, SPCA board members expressed appreciation for the work of investigators and prosecutors on the case, but also disappointment with the plea agreement - terming the penalty a "slap on the wrist" that sends the wrong message to people contemplating similar "white-collar" crimes.
According to board members, there were approximately $2,300 in additional questionable transactions that were never fully investigated, and the plea agreement does not address lost interest income that would have been earned on the stolen funds.
Geneva Templin, the SPCA's secretary, said she remains in disbelief over the incident but is relieved the organization now will be able to move on.
"How this happened or why this happened, we will never understand. ... We're just happy it's over, and we can go on to do what we do in the Ohio Valley," said Templin.