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Monsignor Lawler tells police he saw good in alleged scam artist

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WADDINGTON - Before allegedly being scammed out of his life savings, The Rev. Msgr. Robert L. Lawler said he trusted and saw the good in Bobbie Jo Zeller, the woman accused of bilking him and others out of more than $300,000.

He told police he viewed her as the victim of a hard life who needed a helping hand.

In his October 2012 deposition to state police investigators, seven months before Zeller’s arrest, Msgr. Lawler told state police that she first came to him asking for financial help sometime in the fall of 2009. He initially gave her $100 to $150 because she told him that she had to take her son to the diabetes clinic in Rochester. He said she paid him back, although he gave the money as a gift.

“I don’t know how she came across my name,” he recalled.

He didn’t hear from her again for about a year. At that time, he said, she told him a similar story and he gave her about the same amount of money.

“It was at this time in fall

that I began to get to know Bobbie Jo better, because she told me she thought I could help her with some of her problems,” he said. “I was impressed with her because she told me about some of the problems she encountered in her life, and she seemed very open and honest. She admitted to having been arrested many times for crimes, some of which involved money.”

Msgr. Lawler said he began meeting regularly with Zeller, who told him that she worked for a home health care agency and didn’t qualify for any social assistance, though she needed Medicaid for her son.

“She would ask me for money in varying amounts ranging from $100 to $800 at a time,” he said. “I continually encouraged Bobbie Jo to get a job that offered health insurance. She said she did later get a better job that offered health insurance with another private health care agency.”

At that point he had already given her $10,000 to $20,000.

“I did not keep track of the money I gave her,” he said. “They were gifts.”

He told police she assured him she would someday pay it back.

“To this day, I have not yet been repaid for any of the big amounts of money I have given her,” he said.

an infection spreads

Msgr. Lawler also acknowledged approaching several parishioners for money that he turned over to Zeller.

“This amount between 2010 and 2012 was approximately $5,000,” he said.

Sometime early in 2011 she asked him for money for something other than medical expenses for her son.

“Bobbie Jo said she had something wrong with her car, that it appeared as though someone tampered with it and she needed money to fix it. She also told me she had to come up with more money for repairs to her car out of town or else the repairman would sue her,” he said. “I gave her money to address these issues, maybe a thousand dollars or more.”

Then Zeller presented him with another reason she needed money.

“Then she told me the guy had already gone to the sheriff’s office and she had to pay a fine and more money for fees associated with the fine. I gave her maybe another $1,000 for this,” he said.

Monsignor Lawler said it was sometime in mid-2011 when he began to notice a change in Zeller, one he thought was for the positive.

“During mid to late-2011, during some of my meetings or counseling sessions with Bobbie Jo I noticed she was in better spirits. Something had happened in her life,” he said. “I suspected someone was helping her in some way. She had appeared frightened before, and now she seemed more at ease.”

Despite being in better spirits, the requests for money never stopped and eventually Msgr. Lawler had no more money to give.

After running out of money, Msgr. Lawler said, he drained his retirement account and gave Zeller an additional $30,000.

“Bobbie Jo always said she’d pay me back and said she had a fund for a settlement regarding an automobile accident she was involved in, but there was a hold on it. She assured me that she wanted to pay back the money I gave her and that other people gave to her through me,” he said.

‘i gave freely’

In his original deposition, Monsignor Lawler didn’t name parishioners who helped.

“Some people who contributed money would like to be repaid, but many told me that they gave it and don’t want their names brought into this investigation,” he said.

At the time he gave his original deposition, Monsignor Lawler also made it clear he did not want to see Bobbi Jo Zeller arrested.

“I honestly believe Bobbie Jo needed money for the things I described in this statement,” he said.

The unraveling

His views changed on Jan. 8, when Zeller, who continued receiving money from him, appeared in the parking lot at St. Joseph’s nursing home and presented him with three checks, for $300,000, $25,000 and $6,800, that he suspected were fakes. Msgr. Lawler contacted another priest, who confirmed with the bank listed on the checks that they were fake.

Zeller also realized the alleged scam was coming to an end.

According to a statement from Investigator Peter T. Kraengel, Zeller called him at his office in Massena that day.

“You’ll be arresting me soon,” she said, to which Mr. Kraengel replied, “Why is that?”

Zeller then said, “Because the checks I gave Father Lawler today aren’t going to clear.”

Zeller was charged Thursday with three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, three counts of third-degree grand larceny, one count of fourth-degree grand larceny and one count of first-degree identity theft. She was arraigned in Ogdensburg City Court and sent to the St. Lawrence County jail, Canton, where she is being held without bail.

A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday. Zeller indicated in court Thursday that she would be applying for a public defender.

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