For at least seven years, embezzlement suspect Larry Gene Sark forged signatures onto the backs of thousands of checks made out to developmentally disabled clients of the North Bay Regional Center. He then deposited them into his personal bank account, according to a Santa Rosa police investigation.
Months of poring through the man's credit card history and his JP Morgan Chase bank account showed a long-standing pattern of embezzlement totaling almost $400,000, Santa Rosa detective Sgt. Phil Brazis said.
The money was taken from 51 Sonoma County residents.
The amount of loss varied. For some it was a few hundred dollars and went up from there to more than $20,000 taken from each of at least two North Bay clients, said Brazis.
The money — taken mainly from clients' Social Security checks — appears to be gone.
Sark's credit card records show expensive purchases and trips, including a 2007 honeymoon to Egypt, according to the investigation.
"We're of the mindset he has spent it all," Brazis said. "He just used it as he embezzled it."
The case is one of the largest in a recent string of Sonoma County embezzlement arrests and prosecutions involving officials with the Healdsburg youth soccer league, a Santa Rosa Junior College police officer, a G&G Supermarkets clerk and a former bookkeeper for the Salvation Army in Santa Rosa.
Sark, 66, retired in December 2012 after at least 20 years working for the nonprofit North Bay Regional Center.
The Napa-based agency helps about 8,100 residents of Sonoma, Solano and Napa counties with money management, life assistance and other services aimed at keeping them living as independently as possible. The agency is funded by state and federal money.
More than half of the agency's clients have mental developmental disabilities and many others have autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy, according to agency reports.
The agency's annual budget is about $140 million, with operating expenses of about $17 million and the remaining $123 million going to client services.
One of the main services offered is financial management.
Sark worked as a client program coordinator with a role of helping people with their money.
"He was a caretaker for these folks and administered the funds to them. He was their advocate, the person who makes sure their day-to-day activities, paying bills, were taken care of," Brazis said. "His clients were basically going without those funds."
News of the arrest and allegations rocked branches of the service community that aids people with disabilities.
"It's horrible," said Adam Brown, an attorney and longtime executive director of the local nonprofit Disability Center & Legal Services agency.
"I can think of few worse crimes because the people who are being stolen from really have no means to stand up for themselves," Brown said. "We're talking about a class of individuals, that unfortunately even if they were to suspect something was wrong ... few people would believe them."
It was unclear how many of the alleged victims had been notified, either by North Bay or authorities.
Typically, a person with disabilities receives monthly income, primarily Social Security payments, Brown said.
But because of the clients' disabilities, the money needs to go to a third party to handle for the client and that's where nonprofit agencies such as North Bay step in, Brown said.