Disabled Artists Group Robbed of Almost $2 Million, Indictment Charges

PHOTO: Four former workers and two of their ex-husbands are accused of stealing nearly $1.7 million from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists in Chamblee, Georgia, May 27, 2013.PlayWSBTV
WATCH Disabled Artists Lose Millions in Alleged Scam

Nearly $2 million was siphoned off from the Atlanta branch of an international organization that helps to raise funds for artists who paint with their mouths or feet, according to an indictment.

The main suspect, Christina Kelly, of Snellville, Ga., was funneling donation checks meant for disabled artists to a bank account she had opened in the company's name without its knowledge for at least five years, Chamblee Police Department Sgt. Ernesto Ford told ABC News.

According to the indictment, Kelly wrote more than 200 checks to her five co-conspirators from 2005 to 2011. All six individuals also used debit cards linked to the account to make personal purchases with the money meant for the artists, including trips to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Juan, as well as payments on a Florida timeshare, the indictment stated.

The group that was allegedly bilked of the money is the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, an international, for-profit association run by and for disabled artists to help them meet their financial needs, according to its website. Artists who paint by holding brushes in their mouths or feet as a result of a disability are eligible for membership.

"These allegations are both troubling and alarming," said DeKalb District Attorney Robert James in a statement. "These charges outlined in the indictment are truly reprehensible when you think of people taking advantage of individuals with disabilities to line their own pockets."

Kelly, a former employee of the MFPA, allegedly opened a checking account on behalf of the organization in 2005. According to the indictment, she reportedly stole donation checks from the office, and deposited them into the account without the company's knowledge. She then allegedly recruited her co-worker, Tujuana Ross, to assist her in her scheme.

Ford said that both Kelly and Ross were arrested in July 2011 following an investigation that revealed that donations had been cashed into an account in the company's name that the company did not know about.

Ford said a donor called the MFPA and requested a refund for a $506.88 check he had sent the organization. But when the company could not find the check, they went to the bank and discovered it had been cashed into the account Kelly had fraudulently created, according to the indictment.

"They found that from 2006 to 2011, Kelly had deposited $600,000 into that account," he said.

Following the 2011 investigation, Kelly was arrested and charged with theft by taking and identity theft. Ross was also arrested and charged with theft by taking. They both bonded out of jail days after their arrests, according to DeKalb County court records.

Kelly and Ross were not the only ones complicit in stealing money from the MFPA, the indictment states. Further investigation revealed that Kelly was allegedly funneling donation money to other individuals.

According to the indictment, Kelly wrote checks from the fraudulent MFPA account to her daughters Kiante Smith and Tyleshia Avant, who also worked at the organization, as well as her roommate and Ross' ex-husband Rory Ross, and her ex-husband, Glen Kelly.

The indictment was filed on May 23 in DeKalb County Superior Court. Arrest warrants were issued for Avant, Rory Ross, Kiante Smith, and Glen Kelly for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. They also face charges of theft by taking, theft by receiving stolen property, and money laundering, the indictment stated.

It is unclear at this time if the four recently accused have attorneys.

Artists Who Paint With Mouth or Feet Ripped Off, Indictment Claims

Attempts to reach both Ross and Kelly were not successful. Kelly's son, Glen Kelly Jr., told ABC News that he did not know if either his mother or his father had attorneys.

A woman who answered the phone at the MFPA office in Atlanta declined to comment.

JulieAnn Mills Testi, an MFPA member for approximately nine years, told ABC News she was not notified by the organization about the allegations that former employees were stealing from the company.

"It's too bad that these people steal from something that is so beneficial," she said. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to paint the way I've been painting."

Testi, who paints watercolors by holding a brush in her mouth from her home in Eugene, Ore., said that she hopes prospective donors will not be deterred by the previous misuse of the organization's funds.

"It's a wonderful company," she said. "Hopefully, nobody will get tarnished by the name."