Abenaki chief charged with stealing money from dying man
St. Albans, Vermont - March 14, 2011
April St. Francis Merrill let her lawyer do the talking in criminal court in St. Albans Monday, as she faced charges for allegedly turning a vulnerable adult into her personal piggybank.
"Enter a plea of not guilty," defense attorney Peter Langrock told the court.
Merrill is the head of the Sokoki band of the Abenaki in Swanton. The Franklin County Sheriff's department says she abused the trust of one of her fellow Abenaki. Louis Lafrance is now dead, but for several years, Merrill was helping him take care of his bills and other household responsibilities.
A Sheriff's Deputy wrote in court paperwork that Lafrance questioned thousands of dollars of ATM withdrawals and purchases Merrill made with his account, buying gas, groceries, flowers, and more. Investigators say some of that spending happened while Lafrance was in a full-time care center and couldn't okay the purchases.
Merrill denied stealing from the dying man. Her lawyer said she helped Lafrance and he ended up with money in the bank. "There may be some sloppy bookkeeping," Langrock admitted. "She may have done things with his permission. We don't claim perfection. But we don't believe there is probable cause for a felony [charge]."
Merrill has been front and center in the Abenaki people's fight for official recognition. The chief celebrated one step, state recognition, in 2006, and has vowed to continue working toward a federal designation.
Court documents show sometimes, Merrill deposited her own money into Lafrance's bank account. Police say it was just enough to keep the account from going into overdraft.
The Abenaki chief denied WCAX's request for a comment. Her lawyer said in court that the allegations are flimsy and just don't add up. If she's convicted, April St. Francis Merrill could face 10 years in prison.
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