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Monsignor Lawler’s original deposition explains alleged scam’s origins

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WADDINGTON — Monsignor Robert L. Lawler said he trusted Bobbie Jo Zeller, the woman accused of bilking him and his parish out of $300,000.

He saw good in her despite her admitted past crimes, he told police in October. She even had paid him back the first time he gave her money.

Three years after their first encounter, he still believed her stories were true, even as he gave away his life savings and cashed out his retirement fund for her. “I have seen Bobbie Jo as a sort of victim, and I wanted to help her. ... I do not want her arrested for accepting the money I gave her,” upwards of $80,000, he said in his statement to police.

In reality, the kindly priest and his trusting flock were the victims, state police said last week as they charged Ms. Zeller, 36, of 72 W. Main St., Apt. 4, Norfolk, with three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, first-degree identity theft, three counts of third-degree grand larceny and one count of fourth-degree grand larceny. She is being held without bail in St. Lawrence County jail, Canton.

The alleged scam started small. Monsignor Lawler said he gave Ms. Zeller $100 or $150 in the fall of 2009 because she told him she had to take her son to the diabetes clinic in Rochester. “She paid me back, though I told her it was a gift,” according to his statement to police.

According to Monsignor Lawler’s statement, that was the last time he heard from Ms. Zeller for about a year.

Then she reappeared with a similar story, and a similar request for money, which he again gave her.

“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,” he said. “She admitted to having been arrested many times for crimes, some of which involved money.”

The requests kept coming, typically for the boy’s supposed health problems — always with a promise of repayment.

Before long Monsignor Lawler was invested to the tune of $20,000. “I did not keep track of the money I gave her. They were gifts,” he said.

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

Others gave freely as well.

“I spoke to many parishioners who generously gave to Bobbie Jo’s cause to help her whenever she needed money,” he said. “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.”

In addition to her son’s medical problems, Ms. Zeller’s stories involved car problems and legal disputes, Monsignor Lawler said. He eventually ran out of money. He said he then drained his retirement account and gave her an additional $30,000.

The case culminated Jan. 8 with three fake checks Ms. Zeller is accused of passing to the priest for $300,000, $25,000 and $6,800, purportedly to pay him back. Now suspicious, he contacted a diocesan official who confirmed the forgeries with the bank.

Just as the alleged scam dawned on Monsignor Lawler, Ms. Zeller apparently realized, too, that it was coming to an end. That same day, she called state police Investigator Peter T. Kraengel at his Massena office.

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

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

On Thursday, some four months later, police found Ms. Zeller at a hotel in Malone. She indicated at her arraignment that she will be applying for a public defender.

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