Carter trial begins: Prosecutor says charge is theft, defense says conversion

KNOX — Jennie Carter’s trial for theft, a Class D felony, began Wednesday in the Starke County Circuit Court with Judge Kim Hall presiding, and will continue at 1 p.m. Monday. The trial, originally slated as a jury trial, was changed to a bench trial during pretrial motions held Tuesday, Feb. 19. The charge is based on a $7,748.40 check from the Starke County Tourism account that allegedly was written by Carter, who was then a member of the tourism board, and used for her personal expenses.
At the start of the trial, Carter’s attorney, Bryan Truitt, of Bertig and Associates in Valparaiso, questioned the charge of theft, suggesting it might be conversion based upon lack of criminal intent. He presented a document to Judge Hall stating that Carter admits to using the funds, but the money has been returned.
In his opening statement, Starke County Prosecuting Attorney Nicholas Bourff outlined events that led up to Carter’s arrest. On June 2, 2011, a check for $7,748.40 was issued on the Tourism account to the Indiana Department of Revenue. The state has no record of receiving the check.
Truitt opened by explaining the reasons for Carter’s actions, saying she is a single mother supporting two daughters and a long-time resident of the area. She is employed as a contract employee by Drug and Tobacco Free Starke County (DTFSC) at a salary of $19 per hour. DTFSC is supported by grant money, which was delayed in 2011, and Carter wasn’t getting paid. He said that she called on relatives and friends to help her, and her ex-husband lost his job and couldn’t pay support. She knew she would eventually get a paycheck and always intended to pay the money back.
The first witness for the prosecution was Indiana State Police Detective Chris Campione, who outlined the results of his investigation. On March 8, 2012 he interviewed Carter; the video and audio recording of that interview was played for the Court.
The second witness was Debbie Mix, executive director of Starke County Tourism and the Chamber of Commerce. Mix first explained circumstances surrounding a previous questionable transaction for $7,140 between Tourism and DTFSC, however that issue is not part of the theft charges.
Mix then outlined the steps taken by the Tourism Council to investigate the check for $7,748.40 for taxes that were not received by the State. It was later determined that the payee on the check was something similar to Indiana Department of Revenue, but was deposited in a private account at Chase Bank, Valparaiso.
The only witness for the defense was Jennie Carter, who testified about events that led to her actions and admitted to using the $7,748.40 for personal expenses. Truitt asked her about any prior arrests or improprieties (there were none), and questioned how she felt about using the money, to which she replied, “I felt bad.”
Judge Hall questioned Carter about her actions and intent. He also asked if anyone at DTFSC had questioned what happened or investigated any of Carter’s actions with them. He asked Carter if she thought it was OK that she still was employed by DTFSC.
Bourff’s closing comments centered on Carter’s unauthorized control and use of funds as being the point of theft. He said, “Theft occurs whether or not she intends to pay it back or does pay it back.”
Truitt responded by saying that intent is an issue, that she in fact started paying back the money before charges were filed. He referred to Carter as a “victim.”
Judge Hall summarized the status of the case as being a dispute between whether the charge is theft or conversion. The case was continued until Monday at 1 p.m. when the attorneys are to present case law and final arguments.