A former north Spokane elementary school PTO treasurer pleaded innocent Monday to stealing nearly $20,000, more than a year after police say she sat in the principal’s office as the group’s volunteer president exclaimed, “We have no money; it’s all gone.”
Theresa L. Dewitt, 49, is charged with six felony counts, including first-degree theft and forgery, in connection with the missing money, which belonged to the Whitman Elementary School’s parent-teacher organization. Dewitt continued on as a volunteer with the group long after her children left the school and had managed the group’s money for three years, according to court documents.
Dewitt, who is not in jail, was arraigned Monday in Spokane County Superior Court on four counts of first-degree theft, one count of forgery and one count of identity theft. Her next court hearing is set for January.
The charges stem from allegations that she forged signatures and used stolen checks beginning in September 2006 to bilk the Whitman PTO of money raised through sales of cookie dough and fine chocolate in what authorities describe as an apparent attempt to fund a gambling habit.
“It’s just devastating to a group that’s trying to do good things for kids,” said Whitman Principal Beverly Lund. “The PTOs tend to be a group of parents that just want to do good things.”
The group’s money buys things like playground equipment and covers the costs of field trips for children whose parents can’t afford it, Lund said.
Police say groups that serve low-income people and other nonprofits like school PTOs are often embezzlement targets because of relaxed oversight and too trusting members.
A former PTO treasurer at Ramsey Elementary School in Coeur d’Alene pleaded guilty to grand theft in March 2008 and was ordered to pay more than $10,000 restitution. In May 2006, an ex-treasurer at Opportunity Elementary School in the Central Valley School District was ordered to serve 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to first-degree theft and 11 counts of forgery.
Dewitt, who is represented by public defender April Pearce, told investigators her sister had stolen a PTO checkbook she’d inadvertently left at her home, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by Spokane detectives in January.
That search warrant sought bank records that police say connected Dewitt to the theft. Dewitt could not be reached for comment Monday but told detectives in June she was sorry.
“She said she never intended to take the money as she had always intended to pay the PTO back,” according to the affidavit.
Bank records show Dewitt made cash withdrawals totaling more than $25,000 from August 2006 to September 2008 from ATMs at the Northern Quest Casino and Coeur d’Alene Casino, according to the affidavit.
The alleged scheme unraveled just before school began in fall 2008, when the Whitman PTO president opened an overdraft statement from the bank. She and Dewitt met with Lund, and Lund gathered nine checks totaling nearly $6,000 that Dewitt had written to herself with a forged signature of the PTO president, according to the affidavit.
Authorities discovered money also was missing from the proceeds of the group’s two main fundraisers, a cookie dough and a chocolate sale. More than $4,000 in unauthorized cash withdrawals also had been made, records show.
Lund said the group has implemented new oversight procedures and is doing well.
“It’s looking pretty good,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need our money back.”