Jan. 31—A Waynesville woman is facing multiple felony charges after police say she stole nearly $20,000 from the Mountaineer Little League bank account.
Laura Strother, 39, was charged with four counts of felony embezzlement by a public officer or trustee.
The money was bled from the account over the course of four months.
Richie Cunningham, a former president with the Mountaineer Little League and current board member, said the loss is a gut-punch.
The organization had been making plans to work on its fields before realizing the account was emptied.
"With community support and volunteers last year, we were able to redo the playing surfaces at two of the fields," said Andy East, president of Mountaineer Little League. "We had plans to do the dugouts and batting cages, but now we'll have to regroup."
"She has literally reached into the pocket of every kid in this community and taken money from them," Waynesville Detective Tyler Howell said.
The embezzlement was first reported on Dec. 4. The president of Mountaineer Little League went to the Waynesville Police Department to file a report after attempting to purchase jerseys.
"He was trying to use the league's card to purchase some jerseys for a pretty minimal amount and the card declined," Howell said.
After that, the president went to the bank to look at transactions that had taken place.
From August through November, there were numerous charges amounting to $19,785.65.
"The vast majority of purchases were done at Walmart in Waynesville, which I got great camera footage of," Howell said.
One of the Walmart receipts was for two KitchenAid Mixers. Additionally, on 26 occasions, Strother allegedly used the cash back feature at checkout to pull $100 out of the account. On two other occasions she allegedly got $40 of cash back.
In addition to the Walmart purchases, there were transactions from around Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Locations included Under Armor Outlet, Vera Bradley Outlet, Bass Pro Shop and Outlet Stores in Pigeon Forge.
There was also a purchase at a Waynesville hair salon where Strother allegedly had a family member's hair dyed purple.
"It's been all over East Tennessee," Howell said. "The places this card was used fraudulently goes on and on, not to mention the withdrawals from ATMs."
Howell said that Strother was to be interviewed at the Waynesville Police Department on three different occasions, but canceled each time.
"She blamed it on a local attorney and his girlfriend, claiming that they had the card," Howell said. "When I went back and watched all the transactions that had video to them, it was her every time."
The Mountaineer Little League plays at five different fields. Of those fields, just one is fully maintained by the town of Waynesville — leaving four for the organization to manage.
"We have a mower mow throughout the season until our fall season ends," Cunningham said. "We pay for that. We pay for utilities on four of those fields. That's year-round, even during the offseason. That's why when we take a hit like that — when the account is drained — it hurts."
The league works with the American Legion and the Elks Lodge to use the other organizations' fields for their games and practices. This doesn't come without a cost, however.
"It is a volunteer organization," East said. "We have a lot of organizations that let us use their fields, but we have to maintain those fields. That's part of our operating budget on top of saving for these other projects."
With the funds the organization had built up, there were plans to get to work on fixing up some of the fields.
"We had finally built up enough funds where we could do some major work on those fields in terms of dugouts," Cunningham said. "We need new dugouts. We were going to put a new batting cage at the softball field. We were going to do a few other things to spruce our fields up. Before that we had just been putting bandaids on things."
The dugouts were something that the organization desperately needed, East said.
"We were planning on upgrading dugouts because they're still the dugouts from when I played 35 years ago," East said. "We've been saving money over the years to do projects like that."
This incident has left the Mountaineer Little League officials and parents scratching their head on a path forward.
"Now that we had the funds to do it, we were ready to do those renovations, but then we got drained," Cunningham said. "It'll go forward. We're just starting from scratch now."
Each of the charges that Strother is facing are a Class F felony, each carrying a sentence of anywhere from 10 to 33 months depending on sentencing.
While the report was filed at the beginning of December and the arrest wasn't made until the end of January, Howell said that was just part of an investigation of this scale.
"It has been pretty cut and dry," he said. "The span of places she went is what took me so long. I've had to watch countless hours of video and go back and look at different things."
Ultimately, the detective is hoping justice is served.
"Our whole goal is to bring justice for these kids," he said. "She was entrusted with the role of treasurer with this non-profit organization that is solely for the benefits of the children in our community."
Cunningham and East said they are glad there's been a step towards justice, but won't be fully satisfied until the money is back with the kids of Mountaineer Little League.
"I'm not going to have a sense of relief until the money is returned back to the boys and girls of Waynesville," East said.