DEADWOOD - Because Donna Quenzer was a trusted member of the community is precisely why her $108,000 embezzlement scheme deserves prison time, according to Fourth Circuit Judge Randall Macy.
The former Lead-Deadwood School District secretary was sentenced Thursday to seven years in prison and ordered to repay $108,000 in scholarship funds she admitted to stealing since 2002.
Quenzer, 49, Lead, pled guilty on Nov. 13 to 12 counts of grand theft by embezzlement. Money, amounting to $108,000, was taken from scholarship funds - the Lead-Deadwood Women's Club, Brust Memorial Scholarship, Deadwood High School Reunion Scholarship, the Helen Morganti Scholarship, Margaret Stabio Memorial, the Robert Krug Scholarship, the Roger Rotter Scholarship, the John C. Finola Memorial, the Rena Dunn Scholarship and the Arthur Groenwald Memorial - all school-managed funds. Quenzer said she siphoned more than $40,000 from the Brust Memorial as the largest amount from a single account.
The thefts are believed to have occurred as far back as June 2002 and as recently as last April 2, 2008. She admitted to investigators that she was stealing the money on April 9, 2008.
Lawrence County State's Attorney John Fitzgerald drew special attention to the Morganti Scholarship. He said Quenzer took all of the money from that fund. Ironically, it was set up by the 4th Circuit Court system in Morganti's memory.
"I can't think of anything more nervy than to steal from the court system. Is nothing sacred," he said.
Judge Macy paused during sentencing as he contemplated the Morganti funds and he noted Quenzer's various excuses for the undelivered scholarships over the years. Macy said Quenzer's comments ranged from "the check is in the mail," to "no money available," or "the scholarship was awarded in error."
He noted several cards and letters of support he received from Quenzer's supporters, asking for leniency. "She's got a lot of support. That seeds into the problem though," Macy said. "She had the trust of the system."
Quenzer faced up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine on each count.
During Thursday's sentence hearing Fourth Circuit Judge Randall Macy cut three years from each count and did not levy any fines. He also ordered that the counts run at the same time, so the most time Quenzer could spend behind bars is seven years. After her release from prison, she will have until 2019 to pay the restitution in full to the school.
After levying the prison sentence, Frederickson asked if Quenzer could have some time to submit to custody of the sheriff, to which Macy said, "Right now."
Quenzer went straight from the courtroom to the custody of the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office and ultimately to the women's prison in Pierre.
More than two dozen of Quenzer's friends and relatives squeezed into the Lawrence County courtroom to hear her fate on Thursday.
Quenzer read a statement to the court, telling her remorse for her actions that not only depleted some scholarship funds, but some were wiped out entirely.
"I know I have hurt a lot of people. To this day, I cannot believe I did this," Quenzer said.
She said the money was for her children who needed help. "I had every intention of paying it back," she said, with her voice breaking.
Quenzer was working as manager of a Central City convenience store as of Thursday. "The system in place at the school did not work," Quenzer explained.
Her attorney John Frederickson said Quenzer is a Lead-Deadwood native and said extended jail time would not necessarily be a deterrent to others.
At the time of Quenzer's guilty plea, she promised to pay $25,000 in restitution. However, those plans never materialized, Frederickson said. Instead, Quenzer's mother has made arrangements to pay the $25,000.
Quenzer's grown son Josh is slated to be married this year and fought back tears as he pleaded for leniency for his mother. "Everyone knows what she did was wrong, but we lean on her," he said. "Everything we need, she takes care of us. It's not right taking her away from us."
State's Attorney asks for prison time
Fitzgerald called two witnesses who explained the crime from their perspectives. Rebecca (Mason) Fields, a 2003 LDHS graduate, graduated from South Dakota Mines Dec. 20. When she graduated from high school, her family already had two other children in college.
"I worked hard for the scholarship money to provide a financial way through school. I was so proud," Fields said.
When two $250 scholarships from the school didn't get through to college, Fields inquired on numerous occasions as to when the money would be transferred. Fields said that Quenzer's replies were, "The bank doesn't have it yet. I'll get it."
Fields said, "Unfortunately, I never got it. She looked into my face and lied to me."
Lead-Deadwood School District Business Manager Margie Rantapaa countered Quenzer's statement that the school's system did not work.
"It worked and then she changed it. That's where it broke down," Rantapaa said.
Rantapaa explained that some of the funds were perpetual scholarships where a permanent amount of money was invested and interest earnings were used for scholarships. Money was supposed to be transferred to the students' college or university via a cashier's check upon request from the high school principal. However, Quenzer started handling the matter differently, Rantapaa said.
Rantapaa said Quenzer would use the high school principal's signature stamp to add a second signature to withdrawl requests. She then took the requests to Wells Fargo Bank where tellers handed her cash. This occurred dozens of times on the scholarship accounts until some of them were totally gone, Fitzgerald said.
"It's sad what she did," Rantapaa said. She said the damage had a domino effect, spreading from the students, to the school district to the community.
Macy said Lead-Deadwood Schools have a unique position of having many memorial scholarships for a community its size.
Fitzgerald surmized Quenzer would be eligible for parole early in her sentence, somewhere between 18 months and two and a half years. "She will spend less time in prison than she did stealing from the school," he said.
"It's a remarkable amount of theft. They were very vulnerable victims and they were all under the age of 18," Fitzgerald added. "We'll never know how many people were victimized because some of the scholarships aren't in existence anymore."