Saturday, March 5, 2011

San Jose: Two accused of embezzling $50,000 from Trace school

Less than a year after an arson devoured much of Trace Elementary School, two former leaders in the school's parent-teacher organization are being charged with embezzling money meant for the children, sparking a new problem for a San Jose campus that has already suffered more than its share.

The two women stand accused of spending more than $50,000 of funds on grocery shopping, high-priced jogging shoes, a vanity license plate and a family vacation to Legoland. The money was supposed to pay for field trips, physical education instruction, recess supervision and grants to teachers.

"Trace has undergone such trauma," said Bob Camors, an attorney who volunteered to investigate the thefts and help recover the funds. "What wonderful kids go there. What a great faculty. Why does fate bring this to them?"

Anne Zingale, known at school as Anne Kemske, a 48-year-old former treasurer of the Trace Home and School Club, was arrested Wednesday at the school, where she works as a clerk in the office serving kindergarten through second grades. The arrest was carried out without students noticing and without disrupting the school day, San Jose Unified School District spokeswoman Karen Fuqua said.

Vanessa Eleana Reyes, a 40-year-old former Trace parent who once served as the president of the nonprofit group, remains at large in Southern California, where she now lives, police said.

If convicted of felony grand theft, they could face three years behind bars.

Vicki Petulla, the parent of a second-grader who has been an active Trace volunteer for the past three years, said she was shocked that these two admired women could have betrayed the school and their fellow parents and friends.

"I thought they were so wonderful," Petulla said, "It's weird to hear that these two incredible women, just powerhouses, the pillars of Trace, everyone looked up to them -- especially Vanessa -- to have that happen blows me away."

Prosecutor Christine Garcia-Sen said it was not clear from the evidence whether the two women acted together or separately.

The alleged embezzlement occurred before the devastating July 5 fire that destroyed part of the Trace campus. Investigators said that funds donated for fire relief were not among those that disappeared.

Inherited issues

Suspicions of possible wrongdoing surfaced after new Home and School Club officers took over in the late summer. Then-incoming treasurer, Christy Ikezi, asked for financial books and records, and she was told the July fire had destroyed those records.

After Ikezi got access to bank statements, she and other officers found the club's debit cards had been used for suspicious transactions -- at Target, Chuck E. Cheese, Ann Taylor, iTunes and the Sports Authority. Both Reyes and Zingale had use of debit cards for the group's checking account.

Ikezi and then-new board President Gina Rayer transferred the funds to a new checking account, and contacted an attorney and San Jose police.

At first, Ikezi and other club officials couldn't believe what the statements seemed to indicate.

Then, they found the group had not filed federal tax returns nor paperwork required by the state attorney general's office. And they discovered $7,000 in unpaid invoices from San Jose Unified School District for bus service.

The Trace club, which is similar to a PTA, pays the transportation for class field trips, usually by reimbursing the district for buses.

It's not unusual for some time to elapse between sending an invoice and receiving payment, Fuqua said. Usually, the district would follow up with a second invoice. "We have to have faith in our parent community," she said.

Two accountants, Randy Peterson and Dan Moors of San Jose, are volunteering time to help the Trace Home and School Club sort out the tax and accounting issues.

In the wake of the alleged embezzlement, the Home and School Club board has put several financial precautions in place. It now requires two signatures for all checks and withdrawals, and it does not permit debit or ATM cards to be issued on its bank account. At least two board members count and verify cash at the beginning and end of events. The general membership reviews deposits and withdrawals at monthly meetings, and at least two board members cross-check bank transactions. And incoming mail now goes to a locked box in the school office.

Re-creating bank records, detectives found that Zingale had illegitimately spent $28,000 of the group's money on various purchases; Reyes spent $25,000, according to police.

A history of trouble

Trace, a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade arts-themed school on Dana Avenue, has suffered storm after storm of criminal upheavals in the past year.

Two teens were arrested in October on charges they started the massive fire. They face adult criminal charges.

Lazarus Reavallez, 16, is scheduled for a March 28 preliminary hearing on an arson charge. Seventeen-year-old Kliefert Guiang's criminal proceedings have been suspended until his mental competency can be evaluated.

And last month, San Jose police arrested a 25-year-old child care worker on suspicion of inappropriately touching five girls during an unaffiliated after-school program, called the Child Development Center program, held on the Trace campus. Keith Woodhouse, of San Jose, charged with 14 counts of lewd acts on a child younger than 14, is scheduled for a plea on March 14.

The embezzlement charges follow a similar case in the South Bay. Late last year, two moms of students at Baldwin Elementary in south San Jose were accused of stealing $30,000 meant for field trip buses, a kindergarten handwriting program and jump ropes. The two women, whose case is still pending, allegedly spent some of the money at a nail spa, a piercing salon and Frederick's of Hollywood.

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