With the start of a new baseball season comes a disheartening stat that makes you worry not just for the national pastime, but for the nation itself:
In less than a year, four little league presidents have been charged with looting their organization's treasury.
The thefts left three of the leagues in such sorry financial shape that it seemed the kids might not be able to play this spring.
But nobler souls came to the rescue, and in each instance opening day saw a big win for goodness over greed.
“I was a little leaguer, and that’s where the dreams come true. One day, they’ll get to be at the stage I’m at, and turn around and help, too.”
“By far this is going to be our best season ever!” cheers Chris Arnold, the new president of one of the leagues that will the playing after all.
The first of the four arrests occurred back in August in Hawaii, when 43-year-old Cheryl Octavio was charged with stealing more than $22,000 from the Hilo little league while serving as its president.
Octavio has since pleaded guilty in federal court to that theft, as well to stealing similar amounts from two youth soccer leagues. She faces up to 30 years in prison when she is sentenced on April 28. She had no prior arrest record and worked for the Bank of Hawaii.
“Not your typical criminal or mastermind,” her attorney, Marcus Sierra, told a local newspaper.
With Octavio serving as both a little league president and a bank executive, her alleged embezzlements from the league’s accounts at the bank constituted a double breach of trust. But it also meant that the funds were covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Even so, the reimbursement process usually moves at the speed of government, which is to say slower than slow. The season might have been lost had the bank not shown surprising heart and advanced the money to the league. Hilo may even return to national prominence, as it did in 2011, when its senior division won the little league world series.
“Loyalty…dedication…commitment,” read a team banner.
The second arrest came last September in Texas. Claudia Yarnal Castillo, 35-year-old president of the Southeast Arlington Little League, was accused of stealing more $23,000 from the organization, thereby causing it to cancel the fall season.
“Upon reviewing the transactions, I observed several visits to nail salons as well as numerous purchases at Grand Prairie Outlet Mall during ‘tax-free weekend,’ which were definitely not related to the league,” Det. Allen Constantino wrote in the arrest warrant affidavit. “Also seen were numerous business checks written out to Claudia herself or made payable to ‘cash.’”
At the moment, the case is still under investigation by the economic crimes unit of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s, which is seeking to document what appears to be a long series of thefts. Investigators have noted that the mother of four has repeatedly declared bankruptcy and is some $200,000 in debt. She has not yet been indicted.
Once again, greed was again met by goodness, this time in the form of a foundation affiliated with the Texas Rangers along with three of the team’s players, shortstop Elvis Andrus and pitchers Derek Holland and Joe Nathan.
“I was a little leaguer, and that’s where the dreams come true,” Holland told reporters. “One day, they’ll get to be at the stage I’m at, and turn around and help, too.”
Nathan said, “As a kid, little league was just something I took for granted. I never really thought that it could be taken away from me.”
A $20,000 check was ceremoniously presented to the Southeast Arlington Little League (SEALL). The spring season was a go.
“The sun is out and the fields are ready!” the SEALL Facebook page exclaimed. “Play ball.”
Another posting exulted, “The clinging from the bats is music to our ears!!! Welcome back SEALL!!!”
By then, there had been a third arrest, also in Texas. Noe Joe McKinzie, 41-year-old president of the Peaster little league, was charged with stealing more than $10,000 from the organization.
The alleged thefts came to light in February, when the then sergeant of arms, Chris Arnold, received an anonymous call saying that Nix had withdrawn $3,300 from the league's account to make a down payment on a truck.
“I thought it was a joke,” Arnold recalls.
Arnold telephoned the treasurer, Holly Carter, at home.
“I said, ‘This is just odd. Can you just pull the account up on online?’” he remembers.
Carter made a quick check.
“Sure enough, there it was,” Arnold says. “I said ‘Ill be right over.’”
Further checking showed numerous other expenditures that seemed to have nothing to do with baseball.
“Most of our money for a season,” Arnold says.
They called McKinzie, but he did not pick up and he failed to respond to a message.
“We really didn’t know what to do,” Arnold says. “I never would have thought it in a million years. Why would anybody want to do that?”
One thing they knew they had to do was call the Parker County Sheriff’s office. McKinzie was arrested. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.
The money was still gone, and as the new president, Arnold felt he had no choice but to cancel the season. His shock then turned to happy surprise as donations immediately began to pour in.
“It was almost instant; people were stepping up,” Arnold says. “I can’t say enough about the community.”
The adjoining Weatherford Little League pledged to assist. And everybody’s generosity added up to Arnold being able to announce that there would be a 2014 season after all. The Peaster kids looked better than ever on opening day.
“They’re awesome!” Arnold says.
The Facebook page noted that the league was in need of one more bit of volunteerism: “We are needing someone who's great at painting and lettering the old score board.”
The fourth theft was also by far the biggest. Stephen Verhage, former president of the Kennedy Little League in Madison, Wisconsin, was arrested in March for stealing some $200,000 from the organization over a period of more than six years. The investigation had begun back in 2012 after another league official noted irregularities on the accounts.
“I knew I was going to get caught,” Verhage said when he was confronted, according to the criminal complaint. “It got to be too easy.”
As recounted by the complaint, Verhage initially admitted to stealing between $10,000 and $12,000.
“Verhage explained that he began siphoning funds [from] Kennedy Little League because his small business was not doing well,” the complaint states. “Verhage explained that the name of his small business was Aspen Creek Home Inspection, and that everything started when he wrote out one Kennedy Little League check to himself for $1,000 about a year and a half earlier, and things continued from there.”
In fact, the complaint says, the thefts went back to late 2005 and reached six figures. Verhage allegedly wrote checks to himself and his business while using a league credit card for personal expenses and directing league funds to pay his own credit card bills.
“Verhage stated that he had used the stolen Kennedy Little League finds to pay for his meals, travel expenses for his small business, and house and business expenses,” the complaint says. “Verhage stated that every time he went on a hunting or fishing trip he was not making any income, so that during these times he regularly took Kennedy Little League funds so that he could pay his bill.”
The complaint describes Verhage as being less than completely forthright even when he had to know that the detective would follow the money to the truth.
“Verhage stated that a payment in check No. 5373 for $2,350 from May 9, 2008 was to Chris Pochowski for a used garden trailer for Kennedy Little League,” the complaint reports. “[The check] was actually for a motorcycle.”
At his arraignment, 59-year-old Verhage pleaded not guilty. The size of the alleged theft is matched by the size of the league, so the loss was spread among 60 teams over nearly seven years. The league retained adequate resources to go ahead with the 2014 season, and the players were greeted on opening day by a sign:
“Welcome to Madison Kennedy Little League. Where friendships are formed and life lessons learned.”
On Saturday, all four of the victimized leagues were in full swing. The sights and sounds of baseball at its purest signal that the nest in us has prevailed.
“In all, a bad thing has turned out great,” Arnold says.