MASSENA - A Norfolk-area woman charged with convincing an acquaintance with mental health issues to cash more than 60 bad checks has had her felony charges held over for grand jury action following a preliminary hearing in Massena Town Court.
Massena-based state police had charged Bobbie Jo Zeller, 33, of 9289 state Route 56, Apt. 2, Massena, also listing an address at 70 Main St., Apt. 3, Norfolk, with third-degree grand larceny.
Massena Town Justice Gerald P. Sharlow ruled following the hour-long preliminary hearing that enough evidence had been presented for the court to rule that a felony had been committed and that Zeller had committed the crime. He remanded Zeller back to the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility without bail pending superior court action.
The local court was unable to set bail since Zeller reportedly has two prior felony convictions. She was convicted of first-degree scheming to defraud in St. Lawrence County Court on Jan. 16, 2001 and again on Jan. 13, 2005. She was sentenced to serve two to four years in prison for her felony conviction in 2005.
The latest charge alleges Zeller convinced Rae Ann Dunning to write more than 60 checks over a three-month period between November 2008 and January 2009 with the belief that Zeller had deposited money in her account to cover those charges.
"In November and December of 2008, I told Rae Ann Dunning that I was putting money into her checking account and had her write checks for me. I had no intention of putting money into her account and knew the checks would bounce," Zeller wrote in a statement she provided to police.
Dunning said she met Zeller when they were both living in a boarding house in Gouverneur. Dunning, who acknowledged she suffers from mental health issues, told police Zeller exploited their relationship by suggesting she felt Dunning was like a sister she had never had.
She noted Zeller also told her she was putting $1,000 into her checking account so she could buy Christmas presents on one occasion and on a second occasion indicated she was depositing another $3,000 in Dunning's account.
She said Zeller indicated she had been convicted on bad check charges in the past and needed Dunning to write the checks. She told Dunning the deposits were coming from a trust fund. "She said she couldn't cash the $3,000 check because she got in trouble with bad checks. She said she was going to desposit the $3,000 into my account and have me write checks for her," she noted in her statement to police.
Dunning testified that she had written a number of checks for Zeller including one to her landlord for $2,500 and another check for $740 to another one of Zeller's friends. Trooper Brian Coakley indicated he had investigated the bad check complaints against Dunning filed by several businesses around the county. He said that investigation tied Zeller to the scheme.
St. Lawrence County Assistant Public Defender Christoper Curley argued prosecutors had not met their burden of proving the crime of grand larceny had been committed through the testimony presented at the preliminary hearing.
"There was no evidence that anybody is out a single dollar. Nobody from a business testified they had lost money. Ms. Dunning testified she wrote a bunch of checks and those checks bounced. She pleaded guilty to a couple of bad check charges," Mr. Curley pointed out.
"There is nothing before the court to show anybody is out $3,000 or more. There is no evidence of a grand larceny," he added.
Mr. Curley said there was no evidence presented at the preliminary hearing proving Zeller hadn't deposited funds into Dunning's account.
"Ms. Dunning said she gave cash and products to Ms. Zeller, but there was nobody here to say that cash and products were stolen. Ms. Dunning testified she was relaying on statements Ms. Zeller had made in October. Those checks weren't written until November and December," he pointed out.
St. Lawrence County Assistant District Attorney Joshua HaberkornHalm countered there was reasonable cause based on the testimony from Trooper Coakley and Ms. Dunning that Ms. Zeller had stolen more than $3,000 from the bad check writing scheme that she had used her acqauintance to facilitate the crime.
The prosecutor said Trooper Coakley's investigation had revealed Ms. Zeller was the puppet master pulling the strings to have Ms. Dunning cash the checks. "The value estimated for all of these checks was over $5,000. There is reasonable cause to believe Ms. Zeller stole over $3,000 as part of this bad check scheme," he argued.