A former employee was arrested and charged with allegedly stealing from a Lake Wylie charitable group while the nonprofit looks for answers to keep its donations safe.
“We’re going to have to talk,” said Barbara Bugg, board member with the Sweet Repeat thrift shop.
“We have the (security) cameras. We’ve put up notices saying you are being watched. We’re trying to put the word out to as may people as possible that we will prosecute (if caught stealing). We need to work with the police moving forward on what else we can do.”
On Dec. 19, former Sweet Repeat employee Julie Romero Sussex, 57, turned herself in to police after she was wanted on charges of embezzlement of public funds. The York County Sheriff’s Office received a complaint Aug. 12 that Sussex was allegedly caught stealing donated items.
There had been one other suspect in the theft of merchandise from the shop, but the case is listed as closed by arrest.
“No warrants have been filed,” for additional suspects, said Trent Faris, sheriff’s office spokesperson, on Tuesday morning.
Sweet Repeat takes donations and resells items, with proceeds benefiting about 20 charitable groups, scholarships and missions organizations annually. Last year, Sweet Repeat gave out about $70,000 in donations from its proceeds.
According to sheriff’s office incident reports, Sussex was seen on surveillance stealing items. A board member went to speak to Romero, who allegedly left the keys to the shop and walked out, quitting her job, a report states. Initially, the board decided not to press charges. It did ask for a complaint to be filed and said Sussex should not be allowed back on the property, according to a report.
Two days later, board members told authorities Sussex and another employee were seen on video putting stolen items into their vehicles. Most of the people who work at the shop are volunteers.
The felony charge of embezzlement of public funds can carry five to 10 years in prison, depending on the value of items or money involved. Bugg said it’s difficult knowing exactly how much merchandise Sweet Repeat lost, but that the shop is recovering.
“Our sales have been pretty good and pretty steady,” she said.
Until discovering what was happening via surveillance, Bugg said her group had no reason to suspect there was a loss of donated goods.
Bugg said a donated candelabra sparked some concern when the volunteer who donated it found it was gone the following day with no information on how much it sold for at resale.
Sussex worked at the shop for more than a year, though it isn’t clear how long the incidents occurred.
“It wasn’t every day, but it was ongoing for possibly weeks and weeks,” Bugg said.
The board member said anything taken from the nonprofit would have been discouraging, but having an employee involved is particularly difficult.
“We were paying her to come in and work,” Bugg said. “There was a measure of trust there.”
While the suspect in the thefts is gone, concern about losing items before they’re sold isn’t.
“We’re dealing with a second incident that happened just before Christmas,” Bugg said. “It was almost the same thing, but much more methodical.”
Someone, she said, took a host of items from the unlocked donation shed on Dec. 17.
“We have it all on video,” Bugg said, saying the incident ran from about 2 p.m. to dark. “In just those few hours, (a woman seen on video) filled the truck. Used all of our empty containers that we stack up against the building. She knew exactly what she wanted.”
A woman on video at one point even chatted with a donor who came by, Bugg said. While they don’t know who took the items, the video showed a dark green Chevy pickup.
“Then she drove away and came back again,” Bugg said. “And she had two cars that were lookouts.”
The fact Sweet Repeat has the surveillance it does is due to similar past incidents.
In late 2015, the storage shed was cleaned out twice in two weeks. The shed was locked for a while and donations taken only when employees or volunteers were there. Volunteers at the time believed items had been stolen dating back at least several months.
“I’m angry you’re going to steal goods from us we give to the poor,” co-manager Eve Foery said at the time. “How low can you get?”
Sharing poor-quality videos of the incidents online led nearby Anchor Self Storage to donate an improved surveillance system the following spring.
Other thefts have happened in the more than 15 years Sweet Repeat has been in its spot toward the back of Lake Wylie Plaza. Two arrests were made following a January 2015 incident.
Bugg said Sweet Repeat has a difficult time with the shed, since a giving community has so many items to donate. Yet the shop only is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for a combined 15 hours a week.
“It’s a constant battle, because of the volume,” Bugg said. “We seem to get a lot of donations just left beside the shed when the shed is full, which happens on Saturday and on Sunday.”
Keeping the shed unlocked means the potential for having it cleaned out by people who don’t belong there. Locking it could mean a significant reduction in donations.
“The donation shed is open,” Bugg said. “You can open it to put your donations in there.”
Once items are processed during open hours, they come inside and are locked up like any business would. The shop may institute changes following the latest incidents.
For more about the shop, call 803-831-0722, or visit its page on Facebook.