Broward News

Cat Burglar or Robin Hood? Local Animal Shelter Says Prosecutor Let Thief Get Away

Bank documents suggest the former treasurer of a Deerfield Beach cat shelter forged a signature, seized control of its fundraising company, and then drained its bank account, depriving the cash-strapped shelter of $11,290 that made up its emergency fund.

But despite a paper trail that leads back to the treasurer, Charles Saltzman, and despite a Broward Sheriff's detective who investigated the allegations and prepared an affidavit for Saltzman's arrest, the Broward State Attorney's Office decided last month not to file charges. The reason? In part, because Saltzman allegedly gave the money to another cat shelter: "The state attorney said, 'It's not like he flew his girlfriend to Vegas or something,'" says Cindy Weber of Feline Friends.

The cat fight between Feline Friends and Feline Rescue, the nonprofit group that gained from Saltzman's alleged theft, comes during a period of crisis for the region's cat-lovers. A lack of funds to pay for housing undesired cats combined with a complete absence of cat adoptions means the county is euthanizing them by the thousand. All this while South Florida is attracting national headlines for an 18-year-old accused of killing and mutilating cats.

But volunteers who share a commitment to cat rescue believed they could at least trust their own. "To know that a guy that was here four years ago kept our bank account numbers and then came out of the woodwork to do this, I feel like it had to be premeditated," says Weber.

The money that Saltzman took originated with a charity called Helping Hands for Animals run by Joan Cookfair until her death in May 2001. In the small local community for cat welfare, where money is scarce, it was well known that Cookfair would be making a generous donation. Weber and Feline Friends director Beth Caron say that Margaret and Gina Stefanides -- the mother-daughter duo that runs Feline Rescue in Lighthouse Point -- wanted the money. But they say that Cookfair favored Feline Friends. On her death bed, Cookfair signed a document that said:

"Helping Hands will turn over their assets for Feline Friends. Helping Hands will continue to help generate money for Feline Friends; thus they will continue to serve their mission."

With that, Weber became the president of Helping Hands, with Feline Friends controlling the charity's two bank accounts, containing about $13,000.

In the years to follow, Weber and Caron would learn that they had more luck winning grants under the auspices of Helping Hands for Animals -- perhaps because the name appealed to owners of all pets. So Feline Friends kept Helping Hands as a fund-raising entity. They also considered merging the two charities' bank accounts, but resisted doing so as a way of enforcing fiscal discipline. "If we have it, we're going to spend it," says Caron, "so we kept them separate."

Helping Hands' assets were the shelter's rainy day fund. "We run on a shoestring budget," says Weber. "We never have more than $20,000 in our bank account." Feline Friends' budget last year was $70,000.

Saltzman and his wife became involved with Feline Friends in 2000 after meeting Weber at a PetSmart store where she was doing cat adoptions. After Saltzman offered to write grant requests, he became Feline Friends' treasurer, a status that gave him access to the charity's bank account information. But with these positive attributes came a few unfavorable ones. "Chuck," as he was known to Weber and Caron, would while away much of his day engaging shelter volunteers in idle chit-chat. That, plus his penchant for tying up the shelter's phone line for hours on end began to chafe the shelter's female staff.

When Feline Friends moved its location from Military Trail Road to Northeast 2nd Avenue, behind Deerfield Beach City Hall, it became a less convenient hang-out for Saltzman. In November 2004, he tendered his resignation as treasurer.

Saltzman declined to comment for this article, referring questions to his attorney, Domenic Grosso. Gross claims Saltzman took the funds legally. (More from Grosso in our second post.) 

Not long after Saltzman's departure, Feline Friends learned that their old treasurer had become involved with Feline Rescue. Despite the name, the Lighthouse Point nonprofit is not a shelter in the true sense. Rather, it's main mission is to control the cat population by spaying and neutering strays.

Meanwhile, by late 2007 Feline Friends was having cash-flow problems, and on December 31 of that year Weber went to SunTrust Bank to withdraw the charity's money from the Helping Hands account. The teller told her the account had been closed and all the money was gone.

"I was shocked -- flabbergasted," says Weber. "I said, 'That's impossible.'" Weber and a fellow volunteer were the only signers on the account. She demanded to know who withdrew the money and the closed account. The teller told her, Charles Saltzman.

As a nonprofit corporation, Helping Hands had become inactive, existing only as a name and a bank account. Weber learned that in September 2007, Saltzman had re-activated Helping Hands without telling her or anyone else at Feline Friends. In fact, he changed the charity's address, meaning Weber would not be notified that her corporation had been activated.

Then on October 24, 2007, Saltzman went back to SunTrust and provided the bank with a new list of corporate officers for Helping Hands. He made himself president. Margaret and Gina Stefanides of Feline Rescue were made vice president and secretary, while a Feline Friends acquaintance Kendra Pennel was made a director. Later, Pennel would tell police that her signature had been forged.

Two days later, Saltzman made yet another trip to the bank, withdrawing every penny of the $11,290.69 in the Helping Hands account.

Theft of over $10,000 is a third-degree felony. And at first blush, it would seem that Saltzman would have a hard time escaping that charge. But there's more to this story.

For now, we'll leave the former Feline Friends treasurer in this Houdini-esque predicament. Check back with Juice on Monday for the dramatic conclusion.

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Thomas Francis