As the investigation continues into a forgery scheme that bilked Operation Santa out of more than $11,000 the Glenwood non-profit that has spent more than a decade helping needy families buy Christmas gifts got a gift of its own last week.
The Mutual of Omaha Foundation has donated $10,000 to Operation Santa to cover the losses the group has suffered as a result of more than 220 forged $50 gift vouchers.
Operation Santa is a long-standing Glenwood-based program designed to assist needy families during the holidays. Funding for the program comes from a combination of private donations and the sale of donated items at the Mills County Storehouse. The Mills County Storehouse administers the program and issues the $50 vouchers to qualifying families. The vouchers were accepted at four Glenwood businesses: Family Dollar, Newman's Thriftway, Captain Video/Radio Shack and Pamida.
Operation Santa has already compensated the Glenwood merchants that accepted the forged vouchers at a cost of more than $11,000. Barbara Kaiman, spokesperson for the Mills County Storehouse, said 151 legitimate vouchers were distributed to needy families this year.
Kaiman fielded the call from the Mutual of Omaha Foundation after the group heard about Glenwood's troubles.
“They read the articles, they were meeting to do their year-end donations, and they called me about what the money would do for the program and how it would help us,” said Kaiman.
“We couldn't ask them (the businesses) to write this off. We survive because of the community support we have. And we're responsible for that. I told her, we are not going to become negative over this and it’s not going to change our mission one bit. And they said they were sending us a check for $10,000.”
The Glenwood Police Department was made aware of possible forged vouchers circulating after concern was raised by local businesses about the unusually high number of Operation Santa vouchers being cashed in this year. The 220 fake vouchers were cashed in between Dec. 6 and Dec. 16, said interim Glenwood Chief of Police Mike Mercer.
The forged certificates were virtually indistinguishable from the legitimate vouchers, said Mercer.
“There was one only minor difference and if you weren't looking for it, you wouldn't know,” Mercer said. “They were pretty authentic looking. What raised a red flag was so many were coming in over previous years that the stores started doing some checking to see if these people should have had them.”
With one suspect in custody and an arrest warrant issued for another, the Glenwood Police Department has turned its investigation to others who may have been involved in the scheme.
Dewey L. Stuart, 39, of Omaha, was arrested Dec. 16 after attempting to use one of the forged $50 vouchers at the Glenwood Pamida store. Four other forged vouchers were found in Stuart's possession when he was arrested.
Mercer said Stuart, who is charged with felony forgery and conspiracy, is cooperating with investigators.
An arrest warrant for Stacy Barrett, 35, of Omaha, was issued Dec. 23, however she remains at-large. Mercer said Barrett is believed to be the “ring leader” of the scheme and that “four to five” others are likely involved. Barrett, according to Mercer, is the relative of a Glenwood resident that received a legitimate Operation Santa voucher from the Mills County Storehouse.
On the same night Stuart was arrested by Glenwood Police, two women attempted to use forged vouchers at the Glenwood Pamida store but left the store before police officers arrived.
Kaiman said her board is currently reviewing its voucher format for next year but declined to elaborate on what changes might be in store. Since the forgery scheme was discovered, participating businesses have since been provided a list of families that received legitimate vouchers.
“I'm not at liberty to say what changes we'll make,” she said. “All I can say is as a board, we have explored some options and we are taking suggestions.”