PEABODY — The former president of a youth football and cheering league in Peabody admitted Tuesday to stealing more than $27,000 from the nonprofit organization.
Jacqueline "Jacqui" Pence, 50, of 26 Aberdeen Ave., Peabody, used funds from the Peabody Youth Football and Cheering League to finance dinners out, shopping trips, an Apple Watch and to pay her credit card bills. The thefts occurred over a three-year period, police said.
"Is that what happened?" Peabody District Court Judge Richard Mori asked Pence during the hearing Tuesday.
"Yes, your honor," Pence responded.
But while prosecutor Lincoln Rose had requested that Mori find Pence guilty of felony larceny by single scheme, and impose a suspended jail term, Mori opted to go along with Pence's request for a continuation without a finding.
Pence had offered to pay full restitution in the case, the judge explained, the total amount of $27,712 she owned up to taking when confronted by Peabody police last fall.
If Pence pays the money (which she promised to turn over shortly after the hearing), completes 100 hours of community service, stays away from current league officials, continues to participate in psychotherapy for undisclosed "multiple disorders," and stays out of further legal trouble, the charge will be dismissed in two years.
The case came to light last fall after several coaches grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of new equipment and complaints over unpaid invoices and went to Peabody police.
One of those coaches, Craig Masone, was present in court Tuesday when Pence admitted what she'd done.
"Everybody makes mistakes," Masone said outside the courtroom. "But you don't steal from kids."
The restitution, as well as funds raised by the league after the thefts came to light last fall, will help get the organization back into the black financially, he said. "This is going to help out quite a bit."
He said he thinks he saw justice on Tuesday — though he nearly missed the hearing.
That's because Pence and her lawyer, Paul Woods Jr., had been scheduled to appear in court this Friday. But Woods moved the case up by several days, to Tuesday.
Pence's case did not appear on the court's docket Tuesday. Masone got a call that the case had been moved and arrived at the courthouse moments before the plea hearing was to get underway.
Rose, the prosecutor, called the facts of the case "particularly egregious" given that the money was supposed to go to help children learn sports.
:"She used Peabody Youth Football as a personal slush fund," said Rose, "and she left the organization on the brink of financial ruin."
A guilty finding and record of conviction, said Rose, would let people "know about her greed."
And, he said, she's admitting only to what prosecutors can prove in court, noting that police have no idea what happened to the cash proceeds of bake sales and other fundraisers she ran.
Woods Jr., her lawyer, said Pence has been struggling financially as a result of a divorce and the foreclosure of her home.
She is a mother of three, with one kid in college and two others at Peabody High School, he told the judge. She recently found work at a martial arts supply business in Woburn, Woods Jr. said.
"She made an absolutely horrible decision based on financial strains," said Woods Jr. "She made bad judgment calls."
Woods Jr. emphasized Pence's cooperation with police investigating the thefts last fall.
"She gave them everything they needed to prosecute the case," said the attorney.
"She was able to go out and put together an amount of money to try to make this right," said the lawyer.
Woods Jr. also told the judge that Pence, after she was charged, began receiving psychotherapy for "multiple disorders."
Mori agreed with the prosecutor that the thefts were "egregious," noting that they occurred over the course of several years.
"It wasn't a one-time theft," Rose reminded the judge.
But the judge said he was concerned about "making the victims whole" with restitution.
Mori suggested that judges have been "severely hampered" in making restitution orders in cases because of last year's Supreme Judicial Court decision in the case of a Salem woman who could not afford restitution. That ruling limits the ability of judges to impose restitution orders when a defendant says he or she cannot afford to pay.
And had Pence been unhappy with the judge's decision Tuesday, she could have withdrawn both her admission and her offer to pay restitution, and gone to trial, under district court rules that allow defendants to set the terms under which they will plead guilty or admit to sufficient facts in a case.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.