Originally created 08/28/99

Former Aquinas teacher denies fraud charges



The former Aquinas High School teacher accused of bilking students and charities out of more than $200,000 pleaded not guilty Friday.

Vanessa Velez-Cruz, 47, faces 61 criminal charges in Richmond County Superior Court ranging from theft and forgery to income tax evasion and violation of the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.

Friday, Ms. Velez-Cruz made her first court appearance in Richmond County at her arraignment. Dressed in the jail's bright orange jump suit, white tennis shoes and a chain around her ankles, she signed documents to formally enter a not-guilty plea to the charges and met her defense attorney, Pete Theodocion, for the first time.

Mr. Theodocion entered the case Friday and will represent Ms. Velez-Cruz in Richmond County and in Columbia County Superior Court where she also faces six charges of forgery.

Mr. Theodocion said Friday he hasn't had an opportunity to review the prosecution's evidence yet and only got a copy of the 39-page indictment today.

"It's definitely going to take some time to cover all that material," he said.

District Attorney Danny Craig said Friday that the prosecution's evidence includes about 500 pages of exhibits. "I think that is probably 95 percent of what we will have for trial."

Mr. Theodocion said he will be asking for a bond hearing soon. Mr. Craig said he would oppose bond, calling Ms. Velez-Cruz a flight risk, danger to the community, and a potential threat to witnesses.

The Richmond County indictment accuses Ms. Velez-Cruz of devising schemes to steal money from Aquinas High students, parents, adult chaperones, charities and banks from Jan. 1, 1993, through July 1, 1999.

She became a target of law enforcement investigations after 28 Aquinas High students were stranded in Europe in June. Their accommodations were canceled after Ms. Velez-Cruz's checks to a travel agency bounced.

Ms. Velez-Cruz is accused of creating the false impression that two businesses were collecting monthly installment payments from students and their parents to pay for the overseas trips, according to the indictment.

Investigators contend, however, that instead of putting the money aside to pay for the trips, the teacher funnelled the money into her personal bank accounts and into cash for her own use.

According to the indictment, Ms. Velez-Cruz played a shell game to cover the fact she took money for student trips abroad in 1998, and tried to do the same this summer.

As the departure date approached for the June 1999 European trip, investigators alleged Ms. Velez-Cruz developed a scheme to defraud a bank, a personal friend and a travel agency to secure airfare, lodgings and other accommodations.

But the bank caught on to the alleged check kiting and alerted the travel agency, which promptly canceled the school group's reservation. The students and chaperones had to pay $600 each to return home.

Trial dates have not been set yet in Richmond County Superior Court or in Columbia County Superior Court where Ms. Velez-Cruz was arraigned Tuesday.

Sandy Hodson can be reached at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.