After more than two weeks on the run, Bobbie Jo Zeller was apprehended by state police Thursday morning and charged in connection to an alleged scam that netted more than $300,000.
She is accused of fabricating hard-luck stories to prey on the charitable nature of a retired Roman Catholic priest, his parishoners, and numerous other community members.
Zeller, 36, of 72 West Main St., Apt. 4, Norfolk, was charged with three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, first-degree identity theft, three counts of third-degree grand larceny and one count of fourth-degree grand larceny. State police located her Thursday at a hotel in Malone.
Among the alleged scams victims were the Rev. Msgr. Robert L. Lawler. According to court documents, Msgr. Lawler gave Zeller his life savings, then solicited money from parishioners and acquaintances. A Norwood couple, Gloria J. and Robert W. Dietze, who provided Zeller with more than $30,000 of their own money.
A Helping Hand
Msgr. Lawler told police he had believed he was helping Zeller, who had allegedly fed him a variety of tales about why she needed money.
When I initially gave my deposition to the state police I did not think that Bobbie Jo was trying to scam me out of money, he said in a second deposition. I now see that Bobbie Jo lied to me in order to steal money from me and the people who wanted to help her through her so-called hardships by giving me money to give to her.
Msgr. Lawler said he should have realized it much sooner.
I should have known this was suspicious when she told me things like the U.S. Treasury Department and a judge was coordinating the transfer of money from the treasury department to my checking account, he said in his deposition.
In his statement Mr. Lawler named several people who had given him money that was later turned over to Zeller. That list included William Tiernan, Joseph Tiernan, Ed Sharlow, Carol LaDue, Thomas Nelson, John and Dee Cardoza, Jack Backus, Betty Bernhard, Charles Kelly, the Rev. Jim Shurtleff and Bishop Terry LaValley, as well as others whose names I do not recall at this time.
State police Investigator Peter T. Kraengel said the exact number of victims is unknown, but he said there were at least 20 people who had given Msgr. Lawler money to assist Zeller.
Its really appalling that someone would blatantly stoop to the lowest level possible to rip off a priest. Mr. Kraengel said.
Mr. Kraengel said it is his belief that the alleged scam began simiply, but grew more complicated as Zeller continually came up with reasons she needed money, some he classified as really outrageous stories.
Bobbie Jo constantly came to me for money, Msgr. Lawler said in his statement to police. She told me she needed money to pay fines or she would be put in jail and she needed medicine for her son and if she doesnt get it child protective services would take her son away from her. She also referred to a case of some sort that she was helping an unknown law enforcement agency with. She would say she needed money from me and she would pay me back when the case was closed, but that I could not tell anyone about this and I had to keep giving her money, otherwise it jeopardize the case and I might not get my money back.
Despite those far-fetched tales, Msgr. Lawler truly believed he was helping Zeller.
The monsignors whole life was dedicated to helping care for people in need, said the Rev. Kevin J. OBrien, a colleague who serves as the Diocese of Ogdensburgs episcopal vicar. He was the director of Catholic Charities for 30 years.
Mr. Kraengel said its easy to understand why so many people were involved.
If my parish priest came to me and asked for help I would say, What do you need? he said.
A Realization Dawns
Msgr. Lawler said he didnt realize he was being scammed until Jan. 8, when Zeller attempted to pay him back. He had just said Mass at St. Josephs Nursing Home, Ogdensburg, when Zeller presented him with three checks.
These checks were in the amount of $300,000 payable to me, $25,000 payable to me and a third check in the amount of $6,800 made payable to card services, he said. When she gave me these checks she explained they were dated Jan. 12, 2013, because the money would not be available until Jan. 12, 2013. She said this would be payment for all the money I provided her over the last couple of years that shed pay me back. The check for $25,000 was to repay June McQueeney and the check for $6,800 was to repay the charges she incurred on June McQueeneys credit card.
Msgr. Lawler said he was immediately suspicious of the checks.
I questioned Bobbie Jo as to the post-dating of the checks, which appeared to be computer generated bank checks. I asked why the bank would issue post-dated checks, especially when there is not enough money in the account to cover it, he said. Bobbie Jo replied that the person at the bank who wrote the checks for her was instructed by a judge to write the checks and post-date them. She said I could not call the bank because they wouldnt talk about it and they would deny having post-dated checks.
Msgr. Lawler said he was unwilling to accept the post-dated checks.
I told her this was unacceptable and she said she would get the checks made out for today. I returned the checks to her and she left, he said
He said she returned to the nursing home several hours later with new checks.
The only difference between the checks she presented me with this morning and the checks she presented me with in the afternoon was the date, he said. I accepted the checks and she left.
At that point Msgr. Lawler said he contacted Rev. OBrien, who reached out to Community Bank in Potsdam where the checks were said to have originated.
Community Bank confirmed Msgr. Lawlers suspicions.
In all, Msgr. Lawler told police, he gave her $273,000 $145,000 from his retirement fund, personal savings, gifts, social security and two years salary; $28,000 from parish funds; $100,000 from contributions from others he had solicited on Zellers behalf.
The three criminal possession of a forged instrument charges against Zeller stem from each of the three checks she allegedly presented Msgr. Lawler. The identify theft charge stemmed from Zellers alleged use of Mrs. McQueeneys credit card over the phone, for what Mrs. McQueeney believed was medicine for her son.
The third-degree grand larceny charges stem from incidents in June 2011 and April 2012 when she received $27,000 from Mr. Dietze, incidents in Augugust 2011 and September 2012 when she received $3,090 from Mrs. Dietze and the ongoing instances from fall of 2010 through January 2013 when she received more than $300,000 from Msgr. Lawler, members of his parishes, acquaintances and fellow clergymen.
The fourth-degree grand larceny charge stems from two other instances when she received $1,600 from Mrs. McQueeney.
Zeller was arraigned before Ogdensburg City Court Judge William R. Small and sent to St. Lawrence County jail, Canton, without bail. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for Wednesday at 9 a.m.
A Checkered past
Zeller, who has a lengthy criminal record has a history of similar arrests. She was convicted in 2001 and 2005 in St. Lawrence County Court of first-degree scheming to defraud. She was sentenced to serve two to four years in state prison for her felony conviction in 2005.
She was released from custody in June 2009 after completing six months in the Willard substance abuse treatment program, serving the remainder of her sentence under parole supervision.