School theft ends with plea, restitution, apology from long-time staff member
Former Oak Bluffs School secretary Susan Peters admitted in Edgartown District Court Friday that she embezzled more than $15,000 from a school account under her control. The account was funded by outside donations.
Ms. Peters, 60, had worked in the school for almost 14 years, first in the cafeteria and later in the office where she used her position to write checks and manipulate bookkeeping records to hide the thefts. Standing before District Court Judge John Julian, she admitted to larceny and check forgery charges.
Accepting, he said, the recommendation of assistant district attorney Laura Marshard, Judge Julian continued the case without a finding, on the condition that Ms. Peters perform 100 hours of community service, and comply with the terms of her probation for three years.
In a letter to the editor published in today's edition of The Times, Ms. Peters offered an apology to the teachers, staff, parents, and students of the school where she worked. "I offer no excuse and would like to say I am sorry for the hurt and disappointment I have caused my family and everyone involved with the school and the community," wrote Ms. Peters. "I accept the punishment that was given and hope to be able to hold my head high sometime again in the future."
The agreement allowed Ms. Peters, an Oak Bluffs resident, to avoid offering a guilty plea and receiving a felony conviction that would have resulted in the loss of her school pension.
Commenting on the sentence, Judge Julian cited Ms. Peter's complete restitution of the stolen money, lack of a prior criminal record, and her standing in the Vineyard community. Ms. Peters is the mother of seven children, and part of a large, well-known Island family.
"She's more mortified than anybody," said attorney Charles Morano, who represented Ms. Peters. "I have a pile of letters of support from people who have worked with her."
Ms. Marshard told the judge during Friday's court session, that had the case gone to trial, the Commonwealth would have proved that Ms. Peters took checks, wrote checks to cash, wrote a check to her husband, all without authority, then manipulated the school's bookkeeping records to hide the thefts. She said the crimes took place over a period of more than a year beginning in May, 2006.
In earlier comments, Ms. Marshard told The Times she relied on the wishes of Martha's Vineyard superintendent of schools James Weiss and other school officials in considering her recommendation for disposition of the case.
Last August, Oak Bluffs Police began an investigation after school officials discovered that a school account was overdrawn. An investigation found several unauthorized checks, with the forged signature of principal Laury Binney, had been made out to cash or to Ms. Peters. In September, the court found probable cause to summons Ms. Peters to face charges of larceny over $250 by embezzlement, forgery of checks, uttering false checks, and larceny. The charges carried a maximum of 10 years in prison and $25,000 in fines.
Charges of uttering a false check, and the second larceny charge, were dismissed as part of the agreement.
Superintendent of schools James Weiss, and acting Oak Bluffs School principal Carlin Hart offered statements to the judge.
"Mrs. Peters did something that was totally unacceptable," said Mr. Weiss. "We ask that she admit her guilt. We feel that's important as a model to the children."
Mr. Hart said the case has lessons for the school children. He said school children that have done something wrong are required to admit their role, and understand the consequences of their action. "We teach responsibility," he said.
After the court session, Mr. Weiss told The Times the pension issue did not factor into his decisions. "We wanted to leave that up to the judge as to what's appropriate."
Ms. Peters had control of a school account funded mainly by donations and used for purposes that include subsidizing students who cannot afford to go on field trips. The theft did not involve taxpayer dollars, and the school system has instituted more stringent financial controls since discovering the thefts, according to Mr. Weiss.
In a visit to The Times office Tuesday to drop off letters to the editor, Jessica Peters said she and her mother wanted to apologize and say something months ago, but Mr. Morano advised the family not to comment publicly until the case was resolved. She said her father, Earl Peters, knew nothing about the thefts until police began their investigation.
"No additional punishment handed out that day could ever measure up to the punishment she's already given herself," said the daughter of her mother in a letter to the editor. "I don't think her life will ever be the same again, and that breaks my heart, as it does many who love her and knew her before all off this."