LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is investigating an alleged theft ring involving staff members at a Las Vegas school.
Nearly $154,000 was stolen from DonorsChoose, a program aimed at helping students, according to police documents obtained by the 8 News Now I-Team.
The money was available through COVID-19 relief money designated for educational purposes.
Victoria Welling the principal at Legacy Traditional Schools Las Vegas Southwest academy campus is accused of signing off on the scheme, according to detectives.
Police said multiple teachers were believed to be involved in the conspiracy.
Guidelines for the program specify that one $954 grant per teacher for a school project is allowed.
Police said the accused teachers used fake names to gain access to multiple grants.
While the police identified 50 teachers at the school who would be eligible for the funding, they said Welling approved over 169 projects.
Christopher Olmstead, named Teacher of the Year in 2020, is accused of creating 21 accounts with names such as Chrissy, and Christian to purchase items including 6 Nintendo Switches, an Apple television, and two drones.
Police also said they found a total of 115 stolen items in his classroom and couldn’t locate more than $4,000 of outstanding items.
Andrea Fuentes-Soto is accused of creating at least 16 accounts and changing both her first and last name.
Police said they discovered 35 items in her classroom, including kitchenware, a 70-inch television, and an Apple television.
An additional 27 items were discovered by police at her home, including iPads, Star Wars, and Power Ranger toys with a value of approximately $3,572.
Authorities also say they seized Fuentes-Soto’s phone and uncovered text message conversations with her husband that included questions such as, “Anything else we need the state to buy?” Along with responses such as, “A new laptop LOL” and requests for multiple items including “Pops Power Rangers” which is in reference to Funko Pops figurines.
Another response via text message included, “I hope we don’t get into trouble.”
Police said that they also uncovered a group chat between 6th-grade teachers joking about the alleged theft.
The alleged scheme took place in the fall of 2021 after the program Donors Choose started to notice something might not be right and then contacted Welling.
According to detectives, Welling emailed staff members stating, “I will not approve any more “Donors Choose” that are not real names.”
Both Metro Police and the Nevada Department of Education were involved in the investigation.
By July, the case has moved forward with three warrants, for Welling, Olmstead, and Fuentes-Soto.
Welling appeared in court on Thursday, and her attorney Jason Margolis requested that she receive a “walk-through” in jail followed by an immediate release on her own recognizance.
Margolis pointed out that Welling had no criminal history.
Prosecutor Laura Rose Goodman argued for bail set at the same amount that police said was stolen. “This is a very large fraud and theft within our school systems,” she said.
Rose Goodman argued that Welling is a flight risk due to the high probability of conviction. “She is just as guilty as the teachers who actually took the products,” she said.
Las Vegas Justice Court Judge Suzan Baucum ordered that Welling be taken into custody and set bail at the amount police said was stolen.
Legacy Traditional Schools sent the 8 News Now I-Team a statement and is listed as follows below.
“In late 2021, Legacy was notified by the Nevada Department of Education and State Public Charter School Authority regarding grant fraud allegedly committed by a small number of school personnel at the Southwest campus. Legacy conducted an internal investigation and has cooperated fully with authorities. After charges were filed, Legacy immediately terminated four Southwest campus employees who had been implicated. Needless to say, this is a deeply concerning matter that does not reflect Legacy’s values or mission. We will continue to assist authorities in their investigation.”Todd Schuetz, spokesman for Legacy Traditional Schools
Currently, all three defendants face multiple felony charges including conspiracy and theft.
As of July 8th, Fuentes Soto and Olmstead had not yet appeared in court, according to court records. Metro Police told the I-Team that the investigation is ongoing.
DonorsChoose responded to the 8 News Now I-Team regarding the investigation, the full statement is provided below.
Teachers affiliated with Legacy Southwest Traditional School are no longer permitted to request classroom resources through DonorsChoose. We are cooperating with the Nevada Department of Education, State Public Charter School Authority, and local authorities on an investigation, and we can’t provide further comment at this time. When teachers request resources on our site, we review the request, verify their school and use of a district email address, and notify the principal when a project is funded. DonorsChoose never sends cash to teachers; we fulfill their requested materials and ship them directly to the verified school address for teachers to use in the classroom.DonorsChoose statement
Legacy Traditional Schools is a network of public, tuition-free charter schools in Nevada and Arizona, according to the school’s website.