Woman charged with stealing online donations for Shamokin fire victim's family to serve 1-23 months
SUNBURY - A woman accused of keeping more than $600 raised online for the family of a teenage fire victim arrived at her guilty plea proceeding Monday with a wad of cash hoping to pay restitution in the case and remain free.
But instead, Victoria Fortune, 25, of Pulaski Avenue, Coal Township, was taken to county prison for at least a month.
The remorseful and nervous defendant agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor of theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received and was sentenced by Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor to serve one to 23 months in county prison. An additional charge of receiving stolen property was withdrawn.
If convicted on both charges, Fortune could have faced a maximum of 10 years in state prison and/or $20,000 in fines.
Fortune was ordered to make $643.04 in restitution to victims Barbara Wiley and Joseph "Wes" Vecchio, mother and stepfather of Missy Pangburn, 13, who was killed in a Dec. 10 fire at their home on South Rock Street, Shamokin.
She also was ordered to pay a $50 fine and court costs.
Fortune, who clutched the restitution money in her hand throughout the proceeding, told the judge, "I'm sorry for what I've done and I am willing to pay back the money if they accept it."
The defendant, who admitted to keeping the money, said she didn't know any of the fire victims and just wanted to help out by raising money for them.
Fortune, who was represented by public defender Melissa Norton, claimed she wanted to give the family money raised in donations through gofundme.com in December, but assistant district attorney Michael Toomey disputed that claim.
Toomey said Fortune didn't offer the family the money until an investigation began into allegations made by Wiley and Vecchio that the defendant kept the donations.
Fortune, who appeared in court in sneakers, black pants and a purple jacket, told Saylor she understood the ramifications of her guilty plea and was satisfied with Norton's representation.
In a criminal complaint filed by Coal Township Detective Jeff Brennan, police said Fortune raised $1,240 in donations, but never gave any money to Pangburn's family and allegedly spent $643.04 on herself. But Monday, it was confirmed by Norton and Toomey that only approximately $700 was raised in donations.
Norton explained Brennan was initially provided an incorrect total of the money raised through the website.
'I trust her 100 percent'
Before being escorted from the courtroom by a deputy sheriff to immediately begin her jail sentence, Fortune handed the cash to her former boyfriend, Steve Seldin, and told him to use it to pay the restitution.
Seldin used the cash to purchase a money order he intended to deliver Monday to the adult probation department that collects restitution in criminal cases.
Norton requested the judge to delay his client's sentencing by a couple days so she could attend a medical appointment, but Saylor denied the request.
Also supporting Fortune at the guilty plea/sentencing was her husband, Wayne Fortune, who declined comment afterward.
Fortune gave her husband and Seldin hugs and kisses upon leaving the courtroom.
Seldin said he and the Fortunes live together.
Seldin told The News-Item he has known the defendant for about five years and trusts her enough to have access to his credit cards and bank account.
"I trust her 100 percent," he said. "She never stole anything from me. She has a big heart and her going to jail over this is a big blow to all of us."
Fortune, who was born and raised in Stroudsburg, reportedly closed the online account in January and the webpage was deleted. However, a cached version could be viewed through a Google search. It had asked for donations for Pangburn's family and the other fire victims in the first block of South Rock Street.
Fortune denied any wrongdoing in a January interview with The News-Item, who questioned her about the situation after Pangburn's family alerted Shamokin police and contacted the newspaper with their concerns. Fortune could not explain where the money went, but she pledged to repay the family.
On Jan. 27, three days after The News-Item story, Brennan announced Coal Township had launched an investigation because Fortune is a township resident. The theft complaint was initially investigated by Shamokin Patrolman Raymond Siko II, who was involved in the fire probe.
Fortune turned herself into authorities Feb. 20 and was arraigned on the charges by Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III. She was committed to county jail in lieu of $10,000 cash bail, but was released a few days later after posting bail through a bondsman.