NEW YORK -- Widows of police officers killed in the line of duty packed a courtroom Tuesday for the sentencing of a fellow widow who they say spoiled their charity's reputation by stealing $400,000.
Several widows told U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein about the damage done by Lorraine Shanley before he sentenced the 69-year-old widow to two years in prison for stealing from the Survivors of the Shield charity, formed in 1988 to aid surviving spouses and their children.
Shanley pleaded guilty in September to bank and tax fraud, admitting to defrauding the charity from 2012 to 2017 of $400,000, more than 20% of the donations received during the time period. A defense lawyer said about $290,000 can be paid back of roughly $406,000 ordered owed as restitution to the charity.
Prosecutors say she spent the money on personal indulgences, including concert tickets, shopping sprees, landscaping, taxis, groceries and family vacations.
Defense arguments that she made errors in judgment in response to family hardships and financial pressures drew skepticism from prosecutors.
“To be sure, Shanley has faced terrible tragedy and many difficulties — the premature death of her husband and several family members, as well as children and other relatives struggling, emotionally, physically, and financially through drug addiction, divorce, disability, and special needs,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.
But they added that her “personal hardships are counterbalanced by her victimization of those very people who faced similar circumstances.”
“She learned about their struggles, comforted them, and assured them that SOS was there to help. Yet all the while, she was pocketing the money that had been donated to support them,” prosecutors said.
Shanley apologized, saying she had “no one to blame but myself,” before several women who once trusted her to write checks for the charity spoke.
Mary Beth O'Neill, a co-founder of the group whose husband was shot and killed by a career criminal in February 1984, said she was in disbelief when she learned of Shanley's crime.
“She has really stolen our reputation and that hurts,” O'Neill told the judge. “I do not speak out of anger or revenge. There's no happiness in this. There's no happy ending.”
Kathleen Vigiano, the group's president and the widow of a police detective, said she has worked for the past two years trying to restore the charity's reputation, including by tightening financial controls, by seeking legislation to provide scholarships for children and by reducing homeowners' taxes.
“Our reputation is ruined,” she said. “She stole from us.”
The women said they felt most hurt because of the damage Shanley did to the charity's ability to raise money, harming the aid to women who often must rely on small pensions.
Marie Dziergowski said she considered Shanley her friend after she was the first widow to come to her home after her husband was killed in 1999, but she now feels betrayed because she and Shanley shared check-writing duties and some widows now think she was also to blame.
“Now, my reputation is ruined. I have widows who won't talk to me," she said. “I say: ‘Merry Christmas.’ They won't answer."
She said Shanley had signed her name on some checks.
“Thank God the federal agents were able to see that wasn't my signature,” Dziergowski said.