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St. Lawrence County judge denies motion to suppress Zeller’s conversations with police

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CANTON — Bobbie Jo Zeller, the Norfolk woman accused of conning a Waddington priest and members of his parish out of more than $300,000, lost her attempt Wednesday to have statements she made to police excluded from her trial.

St. Lawrence County Court Judge Jerome J. Richards said defense attorney Brian D. Pilatzke failed to provide evidence that showed Ms. Zeller invoked her right to counsel during an interview with state police Investigator Peter T. Kraengel at her home on Oct. 23, 2012.

Mr. Kraengel testified that when he arrived at Ms. Zeller’s home, 72 W. Main St., Norfolk, he asked her to come to the Massena state police barracks to talk about the allegations made against her by the late Monsignor Robert L. Lawler and June H. McQueeney.

“She said she wouldn’t leave her home freely without her attorney but would speak to me in her home,” Investigator Kraengel testified. “She later said she would talk to her attorney, Mary Rain, about the matter.”

Special Prosecutor Nicole M. Duve, who was hired by the county to handle the conflict now that Mary E. Rain is the district attorney, asked Mr. Kraengel about a Jan. 8, 2013, call he received from Ms. Zeller during which she allegedly confessed regarding checks she wrote to Monsignor Lawler in the amount of $300,000.

“I received a call from Ms. Zeller and she said, ‘You will be arresting me soon.’ I asked her why and she said that the checks she had issued to Monsignor Lawler earlier that day would not clear,” Mr. Kraengel said.

Mr. Pilatzke said that when Ms. Zeller told Mr. Kraengel she did not want to go to the barracks with troopers without her attorney, she was invoking her right to counsel.

Mr. Pilatzke added that, later in that same interview, Ms. Zeller said she would need to discuss the matter further with Ms. Rain.

“Oct. 23 was the only day that she could have invoked her right to counsel,” Mr. Pilatzke said. “In that conversation, she said she wanted to talk to Ms. Rain, her attorney, about the matter. It’s clear from the notes and Investigator Kraengel’s testimony that she wanted a lawyer.”

The defense also offered that a Jan. 14, 2013, conversation between police investigators and the district attorney’s office ended with the investigators being advised that Ms. Zeller should not be spoken to without an attorney present.

“Anything she said to police after Oct. 23 should be suppressed,” Mr. Pilatzke said.

Judge Richards disagreed.

“Based on the evidence provided here today, the defendant failed to invoke her right to counsel unequivocally and with clarity prior to being interviewed by state police on Oct. 23, 2012,” Judge Richards said.

Judge Richards said Ms. Zeller invited police into her home to speak with them because she believed that if she agreed to leave her home, she would be arrested.

The judge agreed with Ms. Duve in that Ms. Zeller had a previous criminal record, including a pending court matter in Massena, and was not unaware of how the system works.

“Additionally, she said she was not represented by a lawyer and wanted to talk to troopers in her home,” Judge Richards said. “She later said that she will talk to Ms. Rain about the complaint.”

Judge Richards said that statement to Investigator Kraengel was a show of future intent and not a clear and unequivocal invoking of her right to counsel.

“The people carried the burden of proof and the motion to suppress is denied,” Judge Richards said.

Ms. Zeller, who has been held in St. Lawrence County jail since May 2, is charged with two counts of second-degree grand larceny, two counts of third-degree grand larceny and one count of first-degree scheme to defraud. A trial date has not been set.

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