Restitution in local court cases was first stolen, then misplaced by the court, our investigation finds

Victims receive apologies; some were never told a probation officer took their money.

A Dayton Daily News investigation found lax oversight of the handling of restitution payments at two Montgomery County courts, allowing a probation officer to steal money meant for victims and then his repayment check to be lost for more than year.

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court officials say 21 checks are now going out to the victims of former Montgomery County Municipal Court probation officer Brian Townsend. The money had sat in an envelope at an employee’s workstation until it was found after the newspaper requested records showing the restitution was paid.

“The court apologizes to the victims who have not received their restitution and wants them to know they will be receiving their checks shortly,” Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Administrator Stephen Hollon said.

A Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office investigation last year found Townsend for years collected restitution payments in misdemeanor cases, then deposited the money into his personal bank account.

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Townsend pleaded guilty to theft in office, a fourth-degree felony, on Aug. 28, 2020. He was sentenced to up to five years’ probation. His probation was terminated three weeks later on Sept. 18, 2020.

The recently discovered court records show Townsend paid $4,450 in restitution on Aug. 17, 2020. That money still has not been paid to victims.

Townsend also paid $196 in court costs and still owes the court $69.

Neither Townsend nor his attorney Anthony VanNoy returned calls seeking comment. Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Krumholtz, who oversaw Townsend’s case, declined to comment.

John Williams of Trotwood was one whose money was first stolen, then misplaced by the court. Records say the drunk driver who crashed into Williams’ Trotwood house in 2016 paid $1,000 in restitution that year. But Williams is just now getting the check.

Williams and others were never told that a probation officer stole their money.

“I don’t even know what to say. I’m at a loss for words. Who does that? An officer of the court and he’s stealing from the person that’s supposed to pay me,” he told a reporter. “I would’ve never known if you hadn’t brought it to my attention.”

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Townsend had worked as a probation officer in both divisions of the Montgomery County Municipal Court.

In a statement to the newspaper, Judge James Piergies said that once he became administrative judge of the county municipal courts in November 2019, he heard rumors of improper conduct by the employee and directed his staff to look into it.

Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office records say Piergies contacted them in January 2020 after seeing a comment on Facebook implying restitution money was missing. Townsend was placed on paid administrative leave Jan. 24, 2020.

Records say the head of adult probation, Dean Johnson, questioned his staff about concerns money was missing, and a secretary told him she noticed some of Townsend’s cases had records showing receipt of payment from defendants, but not records of payments to victims.

Johnson did his own review and found several similar examples. He then called one of the victims, who told him he never received a $223.63 installment the defendant paid in November 2019.

The victim, David Barber, remembers getting that phone call but told the Dayton Daily News he wasn’t informed a probation officer was suspected of stealing the money.

“I believe I should have been told,” he said. “If somebody is stealing money from me, I want to know about it.”

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Barber was owed restitution after his car was hit by an uninsured driver, Katie Fox. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless operation.

Fox spent 18 months on probation and paid $369 in court costs and $2,671 in restitution, according to court records.

Fox told the Dayton Daily News she paid her restitution in installments with blank cashier’s checks she gave to Townsend.

“He never made me fill them out,” she said. “He said he’d do it on his own.”

Fox said she also wasn’t told about Townsend stealing money. She was upset that her misdemeanor charge caused her to get a longer probation period and more court costs than her probation officer’s felony.

“He clearly did that on purpose. Mine was an accident,” she said.

Possibly more victims

After several months of an investigation that included calling more victims and examining bank records, Townsend admitted in May 2020 to his boss he had stolen money, investigative records say.

“Johnson stated Townsend said he was trying to provide for his family and apologized to him and Judge Piergies,” sheriff’s office records say. “Johnson stated Townsend said he started taking the money orders in 2014 and that he wanted to pay back the money to the victims.”

Townsend resigned in May 2020. He had worked for the municipal court since 2002. Prior to that he worked as a probation officer for the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court since 1991, according to his personnel records.

In July 2020, Johnson emailed the sheriff’s office detective a list of cases that records suggest Townsend stole from.

“There are possibly more in the closed case files that we have dating back to 2013 and 2014,” the email says. “However, it is difficult to determine and contact victims from that time period, as well as verifying money orders.”

Oversight of payments

Piergies’ statement said his court followed the direction of the Montgomery County prosecutor through the process.

“Since that time we have undertaken corrective measures to ensure that such activity cannot be repeated,” he said. “The employees who were part of this situation no longer work for the county.”

Piergies did not respond to follow-up questions about what specific corrective measures at the municipal court were made or if other employees were disciplined.

The investigative record describes the process the municipal court was supposed to follow. It says restitution money orders should be filled in ahead of time and delivered to a secretary, who creates a restitution payment letter. “Johnson stated there should never be a restitution payment letter in a file without a copy of the money order and there should never be receipts created that don’t have a restitution payment letter and docket entry,” it says.

The investigation found multiple cases where some of these records were missing.

The Municipal Court of Montgomery County’s two divisions handle misdemeanor and traffic cases in Trotwood, Brookville, Jefferson Twp., Huber Heights and Riverside. The Montgomery County Common Pleas Court handles felony offenses such as Townsend’s.

Another missing check

The Dayton Daily News discovered several of Townsend’s victims hadn’t received the money they were owed from him.

Hollon, administrator of the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, said after finding Townsend’s check his staff searched the office and found no additional misplaced checks. Nor have they received questions or concerns from other victims who should be getting paid not receiving payment, he said.

Restitution payments for common pleas cases are typically paid to the cashier in the probation department in the Reibold Building downtown, Hollon said. They can be made by cash, cashier’s check or money order. Unlike in municipal court, probation officers do not collect payments. The cashier logs the payment, which is then delivered to the court building, where it is reconciled before being deposited in the bank.

Townsend immediately paid the full restitution and initial court costs directly to the court.

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“That does not excuse why it was not forwarded through the system by the employee who had the check in their workstation,” he said. “Within a few weeks, the employee was diagnosed with a serious illness, and the misplaced check was not discovered until last week.”

“We do not believe there is any evidence of wrongdoing by court staff, but do recognize that the matter should have been handled more appropriately,” Hollon said.

Hollon said Townsend’s probation ending in less than a month is typical, because he paid his restitution and the court costs assessed at that time. The outstanding $69 in court costs was added after Townsend paid the $196 he was initially billed.

Three weeks probation ‘unusual’

Judges have discretion to terminate probation early, legal experts said, and inability to pay restitution or court costs usually causes probation to drag on longer for some people than for others. They said Townsend’s probation period was unusually short.

“That seems like an awfully short period of probation,” said Thomas Hagel, acting judge for the Dayton Municipal Court and law professor at the University of Dayton.

“Three weeks is unusual,” said Montgomery County Public Defender Theresa Haire. “Frequently people who have money get better dispositions.”

Greg Flannagan, spokesman for the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office, said prosecutors agreed Townsend would be granted probation for up to five years because he had no criminal record, paid restitution and cooperated with the investigation.

“However, our office was not consulted by the court or the Adult Probation Department when the judge decided to terminate the defendant’s probation after a mere three weeks,” Flannagan said in response to questions from this newspaper.

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The county complied with a legal requirement that crime victims be notified because the victim in this case was considered to be the county municipal court, not the people owed restitution, Flannagan said.

Another victim of Townsend’s is a rent-to-own business on Salem Avenue called Premier Rental.

Business owner Scott Kinnear is owed $250 in restitution from a woman who took a dining room set and didn’t pay for it in 2017. Investigative records say she paid the restitution in 2017, but Townsend deposited the money into his own account.

Kinnear said he wasn’t told the money was stolen. He said the business rarely gets money owed in restitution and he always assumed people just weren’t paying the courts — not that his money was stolen and then lost.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We trust the public officials will be above the folks they are supposed to hold accountable.”

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