Laurene L. Leuschel, 51, of St. Marys, was sentenced on Monday morning at the Elk County Courthouse in Ridgway by 59th Judicial District Judge Richard Masson for the charges of theft by unlawful taking, a grade three felony, and tampering with evidence, a grade one misdemeanor. Leuschel had previously pleaded guilty to the charges during the county’s monthly return day session on Friday, June 3. At that time, sentencing had been deferred so that a pre-sentence investigation report, including a forensic mental health evaluation conducted by Dr. David Webster, could be prepared.
At the time Leuschel entered her plea, District Attorney Brad Kraus had explained to the court that Leuschel was previously employed by the Office of Human Services Incorporated (OHS) in Ridgway and was allegedly responsible for stealing over $200,000 from various accounts handled by the organization. Kraus had also indicated at that time that Leuschel had been employed in the OHS's financial office and reportedly had used accounts there for her own benefit during a period between 2004 and 2009. The thefts were reportedly discovered after an internal audit was conducted.
For the charge of theft by unlawful taking, Leuschel was placed into the Intermediate Punishment Program for a period of seven years, with the first six months to be spent incarcerated at the Elk County Prison. Following the period of incarceration, she will serve a consecutive six-month period of house arrest. For the charge of tampering with evidence, she was placed into the Intermediate Punishment Program for a period of five years, to be served concurrent to the already imposed term. Upon release from incarceration, she must pay monthly $35 supervision fees; $250 for DNA testing and assessment; restitution in the amounts of $136,305.25, $53,311.86, and $65,767.71; and $353.75 for the cost of prosecution. No fine was imposed. As a special condition of her Intermediate Punishment, Leuschel must also continue with mental health treatment and comply with treatment recommendations.
Prior to sentencing, Leuschel’s attorney, Tom Coppolo, addressed the court, remarking that his client hoped Masson would consider all of the evaluations and other information he had been provided when he determined her sentence. Coppolo further remarked that Leuschel is prescribed a variety of medications and sees a number of different doctors, and indicated that the hope was that the evaluations highlight why her charges may have occurred. He added that Leuschel’s “behavior leading up to [her guilty plea in June] was outside of her normal personality.” While he suggested Leuschel “was not herself during that period of time,” he noted that her doctors have since worked to improve her health situation.
Coppolo also requested that Masson keep in mind during sentencing that Leuschel is not currently employed and her only current source of income is Social Security Disability. He asked that Masson consider imposing a sentence in the mitigated range, with house arrest as a replacement for incarceration so that Leuschel could continue with her medical treatment and continue taking her medications as prescribed. He added that house arrest would not jeopardize her Social Security.
Following Coppolo’s remarks, Leuschel also briefly addressed the court. She indicated that she is “sincerely sorry for [her] actions,” and takes “full responsibility for this serious offense.” She also remarked that there are still “events and moments” that she is unable to recall.
“I too am disappointed in my actions, because this is not the person I am,” Leuschel said.
She added that she hopes to make amends.
After her remarks, Masson indicated that he would take her statement and Coppolo’s requests into consideration during sentencing; however, he later noted there being some dichotomy between when Leuschel began engaging in criminal behavior and when her medical and mental health conditions were diagnosed. According to the affidavit of probable cause obtained by The Daily Press in June from the Elk County Prothonotary’s Office, Leuschel was employed as a Fiscal Officer for OHS from July 12, 2004 to Jan. 26, 2009. While Masson remarked that Leuschel’s criminal behavior is believed to have begun shortly after she gained employment at OHS, he noted that she was not diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis until 2008 and was not diagnosed as being bipolar until 2009. While Masson remarked that Leuschel’s “mental health disorder and Multiple Sclerosis may have manifested in 2004, there is no report indicating that” she was dealing with the effects of either when she began her criminal behavior.
Furthermore, Masson remarked that, in his report, Webster had indicated that his tests showed Leuschel has a “deeply ingrained criminological thinking pattern.” Additionally, Masson later stated that Webster’s findings showed “scores consistent across all domains for someone engaged in lifelong criminal activity.” However, he noted that the current criminal charges are Leuschel’s first. Masson added that, in his report, Webster found Leuschel to have a diagnosis of Axis I bipolar and Axis II personality disorder. While Webster’s report reflected that Leuschel has no criminal background, it also indicated a significant criminal element in her thought processing and, because of this, Webster recommended that continued mental health treatment be part of her sentence.
Masson also discussed a victim impact statement he had received from an employee of OHS, which had suggested that while there was no individual victim, Leuschel’s criminal behavior may have impacted services that could have benefited area senior citizens. While Masson noted that he could not use that as a factor in determining Leuschel’s sentence because it was speculation, he stressed that her actions were particularly disruptive to OHS because the organization did not have the availability of money that would have otherwise been available to them and also spent a significant amount of time dedicated to addressing the situation caused by Leuschel’s actions.
According to the affidavit of probable cause, Leuschel's transgressions were initially discovered Jan. 23, 2009, when "Kevin Oknefski, the Branch Manager of Northwest Savings Bank (NWSB) at 121 Main Street in Ridway, contacted William Orzechowski, Executive Director of OHS, regarding unusual banking transactions" involving one of the organization's checking accounts after he had received one of the organization's checks, signed by Leuschel, "in the amount of $4,750.00 and made payable to NWSB."
Pick up a copy of the Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.