What happened at Yorkville food pantry? Director dead, $200,000 missing

  • Maria Spaeth, the beloved late executive director of Kendall County Food Pantry, died in June not long after money was reported missing.

    Maria Spaeth, the beloved late executive director of Kendall County Food Pantry, died in June not long after money was reported missing. COURTESY OF NICOR GAS

 
 
Updated 10/20/2016 10:03 AM

It has elements of a classic whodunit, semirural suburban county-style:

As much as $200,000 -- equal to almost 80 percent of its income in 2013 -- is missing from the Kendall County Food Pantry in Yorkville.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Its executive director resigned in June and died three weeks later from a mixture of prescription drugs. The investigation of her death, a coroner says, is hampered by the refusal of her husband to be interviewed.

The husband was the treasurer of the pantry. Serving with them on the board of directors? The Kendall County state's attorney.

And amid all this mystery, a Kendall County state legislator -- who also was on the board -- is calling for stiffer penalties for people who steal from charities.

For now the pantry continues to limp along, but its remaining volunteers feel hurt and betrayed.

"There have been a lot of tough mornings walking through that door," volunteer Judy Pacheco said, manning the food pantry's reception desk. "I'm angry. I'm sad."

And puzzled.

How could the pantry go from having a little more than $137,236 in its accounts at the end of its 2014 fiscal year to not having enough to keep the lights on this past June?

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Better times

Maria Spaeth made great things happen when she took over in 2008 as the food pantry's executive director.

It was operating in the basement of a Farm Bureau building in Yorkville. It had no heat or air conditioning. Restrooms were three stories up.

Spaeth took city and community leaders on a tour, Pacheco said. That started a campaign to move the pantry, first to a better donated space. Then in 2012, it bought a building, for cash, in an industrial park in Yorkville.

The number of hungry people served doubled, from 47,286 in 2010 to 96,000 in 2013, according to the charity's federal tax returns.

Annual revenues grew from $261,396 to $404,801 in a four-year span ending in 2014, according to tax returns available from charity-monitoring organizations Guidestar and Charity Navigator.

The former director of the Kendall County Food Pantry spearheaded a campaign for the pantry to get its own home, in a former industrial building in Yorkville.
  The former director of the Kendall County Food Pantry spearheaded a campaign for the pantry to get its own home, in a former industrial building in Yorkville. - Susan Sarkauskas | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This was an unpaid labor of love for Spaeth. The tax forms indicated the Yorkville resident spent 60 hours a week working on behalf of the pantry, and that her husband, Kenneth Spaeth, devoted 20 hours a week.

And Kenneth Spaeth -- an executive with Old Second National Bank for much of the time -- was admired, too. Especially for donating a kidney to one of the other board members.

In April, the National Association of Professional Women inducted Maria Spaeth to its VIP Woman of the Year Circle for her work.

$5 in the bank

But volunteers began to suspect something was amiss this spring, Pacheco said. Bank balances seemed unusually low.

Several told Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis their misgivings in May. He asked Yorkville police to investigate. Police searched "a personal residence" in Yorkville and the pantry June 1, removing materials from the pantry.

The Spaeths resigned that week.

Pacheco said people were crying as Maria Spaeth packed up her office. "'I think I'm going to be arrested for theft,'" Pacheco said Maria Spaeth told her.

Could the pantry stay open?

Pacheco recalled arriving at the pantry the next Monday and a volunteer in charge of paying bills was crying. There wasn't enough money in the pantry's checking account to pay its electricity bill.

There were a few checks from donors in that day's mail. They ran over to the bank to deposit them and were able to pay enough of the bill to keep the power from being turned off.

Two days later, the same thing happened with a water bill. After paying that bill, there was $5 left in the bank account, Pacheco said.

Where did it go?

Authorities are investigating the possibility that as much as $200,000 may have gone missing from the Kendall County Food Pantry.
  Authorities are investigating the possibility that as much as $200,000 may have gone missing from the Kendall County Food Pantry. - Susan Sarkauskas | Staff Photographer

So far, nobody is saying what happened to the money. Yorkville police and State's Attorney Weis are not commenting.

Citing his involvement with the pantry and because he could be called as a witness, Weis asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor to continue the investigation. A lawyer from the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor has been appointed. He is reviewing information to decide whether to bring criminal charges.

Maria Spaeth died June 21 at the Spaeths' vacation home on Lake Holiday near Sandwich. DeKalb County Coroner Dennis Miller said she died of drug intoxication, from the pain reliever acetaminophen, the narcotic painkiller hydrocodone, and alprazolam, a central-nervous-system depressant often prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders. There was no evidence she took an exceptional number of pills, but the combination of medicines proved to be lethal, he said.

Miller ruled the caused of death "undetermined," largely because her husband has refused to be interviewed. There was no evidence of foul play or suicide, and the medications were prescribed to her, he said.

Kenneth Spaeth was market president and group leader at Midland States Bank in Yorkville until August, according to a LinkedIn profile. He could not be reached for comment.

Tougher penalties

State Rep. Keith Wheeler was chairman of the pantry's board of directors through 2014. His wife, Lisa, also served on the board. They were one of four married couples on the board, which operated with eight to 10 members.

Wheeler said for financial oversight, he relied on audit reports the board received each year.

Besides their time, the Wheelers also gave money, including at its Project Stand By Me fundraising parties.

The parties, including auctions, were advertised as helping the pantry continue its mission. Subtracting the costs of the parties from the income, the fundraisers lost money, as much as $29,289 each time, according to tax returns.

"We absolutely would have gone to the police," Wheeler said, if the audits had indicated something was missing. "There was nothing that seemed improper."

After learning of the apparent theft, the Oswego Republican proposed legislation in mid-August to toughen penalties for stealing from charities.

It would add nonprofit organizations to the special victims category in the state's theft law, similar to churches, schools and governments. That's only proper, he said, because charity thieves, "are stealing from more than one person."

0 Comments
 
Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.