ST. LOUIS -- Two top St. Louis parks officials have been charged with stealing nearly half a million dollars from the city since 2005, leading the bewildered mayor to question how the alleged graft could go on for so long without being noticed.
The federal indictment returned Wednesday accuses 43-year-old Thomas “Dan” Stritzel, the city’s chief park ranger, and 55-year-old deputy parks commissioner Joseph Vacca with three counts of mail fraud apiece related to the alleged theft of roughly $465,000.
Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, called the allegations against “two senior guys”—Stritzel has worked for the city since 1996, Vacca since 1989 -- disappointing and said they have are being placed on forced, unpaid leave, pending disciplinary proceedings.
“If these charges are true, they deserve everything they get for betraying the public trust,” Crane said Thursday, noting that city leaders only learned recently of the possible wrongdoing when the FBI asked them to hold off on their own investigation until the indictment came.
Crane said it’s not clear yet how the alleged theft could go on for so long without being detected.
“We have those same questions,” she said. “And there will be an investigation into how this happened and why it happened so long, so we can make sure this doesn’t ever happen again—or at least reduce the risk of it as much as possible.”
Stritzel’s attorney, Scott Rosenblum, said Thursday that, “we’ve known (the indictment) was in the works,” citing his discussions over the past three months with the case’s lead federal prosecutor. Rosenblum declined to elaborate.
“We’re in the position now to review the evidence and make decisions based on that,” he said.
Online court records don’t show whether Vacca, who filed for bankruptcy in 2009, has legal counsel, and he does not have a listed home telephone number.
The indictment alleges that from January 2005 through the end of last year, Stritzel and Vacca used false or inflated invoices to funnel the pilfered city funds through sham companies. Prosecutors say they spent the money on vehicles, paying off credit card debt, and other expenses.
“Taxpayers were slapped in the face when roughly half a million dollars was allegedly embezzled from city of St. Louis funds allocated to the parks department,” Dean Bryant, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s St. Louis office, said in a statement.
Court records show that Vacca filed for bankruptcy in late 2009, saying he had liabilities—largely in the form of mortgage payments and credit card bills—that were hundreds of thousands of dollars more than his assets.
Each of the felony counts is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.