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Parent suspected in theft of $65,000 from school

The missing money was raised by Emerson parents and students; its loss leaves debts and a sense of betrayal.

June 20, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

The former treasurer of a parents' booster group at a West Los Angeles middle school is suspected of stealing $65,000 raised by parents and students, police said Thursday.

The alleged embezzlement by James Harold Marzullo, 44, has proved more than a financial stress at Emerson Middle School.

A respected parent and valued volunteer, Marzullo also was a childhood friend of the school principal. And his late father was a widely respected Los Angeles elementary school administrator, Emerson Principal Kathy Gonnella said.

"We grew up together," Gonnella said. "There's that second layer of betrayal I feel."

The money lost represents about two years' worth of fundraising and dues, this year's proceeds of about $35,000 along with a reserve of about the same amount.

A real estate agent, Marzullo had committed to being among the "small group of 20 people doing everything" at the school, said Terri R. Fowler, co-president of Emerson's Parent Teacher Student Assn. "He went to school functions. He participated in doing things, field trips."

And he took on the role of treasurer in February 2006, both for the booster club, a nonprofit that raises money, and for the PTSA chapter.

Fowler had personal ties to Marzullo too. Her son is a friend of Marzullo's daughter. Marzullo had taken them to the beach and baseball games. When Marzullo's daughter transferred to another school, he offered to remain treasurer, on the expectation, he said, that his younger daughter would attend Emerson in the fall of 2008.

All the while, his finances were apparently getting tighter.

"We would have conversations that the downturn in the economy was affecting him as well," Gonnella said.

At booster club meetings, Marzullo's financial reports gradually became nonspecific, Fowler said. He also picked up the monthly bank statements at the school before anyone else could see them, she said.

Near the end of 2007, he stopped attending meetings and wouldn't answer e-mails. But it was the holidays; people assumed he was busy.

In March, Gonnella sent Marzullo a playful but pointed e-mail: "Missing u, needing cash, but still missing u. . . ."

The next day, Gonnella and Fowler opened the bank statement themselves and found accounts virtually at zero.

Marzullo responded to Gonnella by e-mail, his last communication with the school:

"As you might have figured out I am [having] some personal issues and not really up to speed these days," Marzullo wrote. "I am sorry for not communicating with you and [Terri] and I am deeply embarrassed by my actions. Please reassure everybody that all will be taken care of within the next few days. I am truly sorry for this delay."

After Marzullo canceled or failed to show up for scheduled interviews with police, officers quietly arrested him at the fifth-grade graduation for his younger daughter. Police said the missing money has not been recovered.

When reached by phone Thursday, Marzullo, who is free on bail, declined to comment or answer questions.

At a school where three-quarters of the students qualify for poverty assistance, parents and students had raised the money through pledges, a magazine drive, two book fairs, a raffle, a barbecue and a Valentine store where students bought heart-shaped balloons, stuffed bears, candles and costume jewelry for their mothers and sweethearts.

The school now owes the magazine company $11,000. Annual grants for drama, technology and music won't happen. The school could not find $7,500 to replace its dying computer server.

"It's been devastating," Fowler said. "We all read in the paper that budget cuts are everywhere. Now more than ever we need the fundraising money to supplement what isn't covered. Some families contributed substantial amounts of money that is just gone."

But the school community has pulled together. There was no money for the traditional end-of-year thank-you brunch for staff, but no one went hungry. And someone has given the school a used computer server.

"This made a lot of people step up and be involved," Fowler said. "It's sad, but this has made a lot of people realize they need to do more."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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