The fleecing of a food pantry: Records detail suburban family's extensive theft

 
 
Updated 9/17/2018 7:02 AM
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  • The Kendall County Community Food Pantry in Yorkville.

      The Kendall County Community Food Pantry in Yorkville. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • William Crowley

    William Crowley

  • Kenneth Spaeth

    Kenneth Spaeth

  • Maria Spaeth

    Maria Spaeth

"They should have just fricking paid me."

That's what the late Maria Spaeth told Yorkville police Detective John Hunter when he questioned her about using Kendall County Food Pantry credit cards to pay her personal expenses.

Her statement is in a lengthy police report the Daily Herald obtained, now that Spaeth's husband and her father have pleaded guilty to stealing from the pantry.

Many details were withheld until the criminal cases were resolved.

Spaeth was the volunteer executive director of the pantry from 2008 until June 1, 2016. Her husband, Kenneth, a bank president, was its treasurer. Her father, William Crowley, did building work for the pantry.

Area residents marveled at how Maria got the pantry out of a cramped basement in a Farm Bureau building and raised enough money to buy a warehouse in Yorkville.

The pantry began serving more clients and raising more money. In 2011, she was a co-recipient of the Live United award from the Fox Valley United Way and the "Community Impact Award" from the Yorkville Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber gave her husband the "Business of the Year" award for his leadership and volunteer service to the chamber and community.

Something amiss

But in early 2015, a volunteer working in the pantry's office suspected something was amiss. There were expenses charged to the pantry that didn't seem kosher -- personal things for the Spaeths.

When she confronted Maria Spaeth about them, Spaeth told her Kenneth Spaeth would reimburse the pantry when he received his annual bonus from his job at Midland Bank. When the volunteer mentioned it again months later, Maria Spaeth -- who was in charge of reviewing the bills and authorizing the expenses -- removed the woman from the office and reassigned her to other tasks.

But when the pantry bounced a check in April 2016 -- drawn on an account the volunteers believed was supposed to have at least $100,000 -- that volunteer and another decided it was time to say something.

They took some pantry documents to a private attorney, who went to Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis. Weis, who had served on the pantry's board of directors with the Spaeths, notified police May 26, 2016.

Maria Spaeth died of prescription drug intoxication less than a month later on June 21, 2016. Her husband and father were charged in January 2017 with theft.

Both pleaded guilty this year and were ordered to pay restitution. The pantry also sued both to recover its money.

Kenneth Spaeth agreed to repay $175,000 plus interest. The Crowley case has been continued until December.

Neither could be reached for comment. Both repeatedly refused to comment after their criminal court hearings.

What happened

Court records paint a picture of a family that used the charity's money to pay for $199,554 worth of home remodeling, travel, meals, boat expenses, tattoos and body piercings, and other expenses from August 2014 until April 2016.

Money was spent in Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Florida -- places where the food pantry had no business.

In April 2013, there was $121,564 in the pantry's bank account; by March 31, 2016, there was only $661.50.

Police searched the Spaeths' and the pantry's financial records, but, contrary to what Maria Spaeth told them during an hourlong interview, there was no indication the Spaeths ever reimbursed the pantry for the personal spending.

Besides the pantry credit card in Maria Spaeth's name, she and her family had access to at least four other pantry credit cards. Sometimes they used pantry checks.

Among the expenses were airline tickets; hotel stays in Denver; cellphones for several of the Spaeths' children (the pantry cellphone bill was more than $1,000 a month); expenses at Lake Holiday, where the Spaeths' had a second house and kept a boat; dental crowns; windows, tile, grout, cabinets and a dumpster rental for the Spaeths' Yorkville house; a Sybaris Club stay; a monthly membership charge at the Aurora Country Club; mattresses; a television set; fishing gear and licenses; shipping for packages to Arizona; prescription medications bought in Arizona; medical bills for the Spaeth children; fuel for Kenneth's personal vehicle, including at out-of-state stations; cigarettes; miniature golf; fuel and Home Depot purchases in Arizona; haircuts for their sons; and purchases for a son at a tattoo and piercing shop in New Jersey.

And that was just from 2014 to 2016. "It seemed like it had been going longer," Hunter said, but he stopped investigating when Maria Spaeth died. He then concentrated on Kenneth Spaeth and Crowley.

How it worked

Maria Spaeth would review the credit card statements and write codes next to items for the pantry's accounting system.

She would give them to a volunteer, who added up the amounts for each code and submitted the paperwork to an unnamed board member. The board member would enter the totals in the accounting system and prepare the checks, and Spaeth would sign the checks, according to the volunteer.

Maria Spaeth was home when police showed up with a warrant to search her house. She agreed to an audio-recorded interview with Hunter.

At first, she denied having personal expenses paid for by the pantry. She had answers for many of the charges.

The dental charge? For coupons the pantry handed out during Dental Health Month. A Massage Envy gift card was a reward for a volunteer, bought with money donated by other volunteers. Airplane tickets? Some were for flying in a volunteer to do electrical work at the pantry. That electrician? Her father. Dozens and dozens of meals? For the volunteers.

Others, she said, were mistakes, such as the airline tickets to Texas, the Colorado hotel stay, the $1,800 Lake Holiday Marina payment. Her husband had, or was going to, reimburse the pantry, she said.

Hunter asked if pantry records would show the reimbursements.

"Heck yeah, they better be or I'm in trouble," Maria Spaeth replied.

"Her answers just did not add up," Hunter said.

He told her he didn't believe her. Maria Spaeth said her husband probably wasn't aware she was charging personal expenses to the pantry, that she had started doing so a year earlier, and estimated she had benefited "about $20,000" in one year.

"I told Maria she was looking at the theft of over $100,000 probably by the time we figure everything out, to which she replied, 'They should have just fricking paid me,'" Hunter wrote.

Other tidbits

Kenneth Spaeth was upset he was not allowed to enter the house once the search had begun. He "was demanding to enter the residence to stop his wife from talking to police," a police officer reported.

Kenneth Spaeth called his lawyer, who called the Yorkville police chief and asked him to have the detectives halt the interview. The chief told an officer to immediately call Weis to find out if the lawyer could invoke Miranda rights on behalf of a client.

Volunteers told police Kenneth Spaeth did not do much for the pantry.

Some said he would help on Thursday nights when food was distributed. They saw him driving a pantry vehicle for personal use. Crowley also was allowed to drive pantry vehicles when he was in Illinois.

Hunter, who has a college degree in finance and worked for a bank for eight years, said there were indications the pantry's auditors had begun to suspect something. "You can't take it (the money) forever, because eventually, somebody notices it is gone," he said.

Hunter, who is now a patrol sergeant, has worked on other embezzlement and theft cases in Yorkville.

"This one was a little more blatant," he said. It wasn't terribly complex: The person who spent the money was the same one approving the bills, and related to the treasurer who cut the checks.

"It can happen anywhere were an organization does not have (proper) controls over the money," Hunter said.

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