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Retired DeKalb Junction minister, wife share story about accused con artist

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DEKALB JUNCTION — Johnnie F. LaRue and her husband, the Rev. James E. LaRue, were looking at their newspaper late last week when they saw a familiar name: Bobbie Jo Zeller.

Ms. Zeller was arrested last week and charged with three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, first-degree identity theft, three counts of third-degree grand larceny and one count of fourth-degree grand larceny in connection with the fraudulent appropriation of more than $300,000 from a priest and his diocese in Waddington.

According to Investigator Peter T. Kraengel of the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who took a deposition from Mrs. LaRue on Monday morning, the now retired minister and his wife, who run an adult home, contacted him Friday after reading about the case.

While no additional charges have been filed, Mr. Kraengel said, those charges are likely to include one to four misdemeanor petit larceny counts.

In the statement, Mrs. LaRue recalled meeting Ms. Zeller during the summer of 2009, when she answered her phone and heard a person identified as Bobbie Joe Zeller sobbing.

Mrs. LaRue said Ms. Zeller told her she was looking through the phone book and the book “popped open” to the listing of the Church of Christ in DeKalb Junction. She asked to speak with the minister. After the Rev. Mr. LaRue spoke with her, he and his wife went to meet Ms. Zeller at the Cascade Inn in Canton.

Ms. Zeller told the LaRues she had just been released from jail, had nowhere to go and hadn’t eaten in three days.

Mr. and Mrs. LaRue took her to Ponderosa in Potsdam.

Despite having told the LaRues she had not eaten for days, Mrs. LaRue said, from what she remembers Ms. Zeller didn’t appear hungry and ate only a “few spoonfuls of food.”

“After the meal we brought Bobbie Jo with us to the Canton-Potsdam Hospital to visit a friend of ours who just had knee surgery,” she said. “Bobbie Jo continued to talk to us constantly from the time we picked her up at the Cascade Inn until we dropped her off.”

It was during that visit that Mrs. LaRue said they felt a friendship was developing. Nevertheless, Mr. and Mrs. LaRue did not hear from Ms. Zeller again until that winter.

“Bobbie Jo arrived unannounced at our home in DeKalb. It was sometime after dinner and she knocked on our door,” she said. “Bobbie Jo was with her friend, whom she introduced as Rayann.”

That Sunday, Mrs. LaRue said, Ms. Zeller and her friend were at the church. Several weeks later, they would again hear from Ms. Zeller, who told them when she and Rayann were at their house she was “wearing a wire because she and Rayann were on their way to a drug deal in Gouverneur.”

Mrs. LaRue said neither she nor her husband had given Ms. Zeller any money since their initial meeting. That however, was about to change.

“It was months before we heard from Bobbie Jo again. She called me on the phone and asked if I could come and pick her and (her son) up from the McDonald’s in Massena on Main Street and state Route 37,” she said. “She said she needed a place to stay because her boyfriend had thrown her out of the place they shared in Massena. Bobbie Jo and her son stayed with us for one night and the next day she and I went looking for an apartment.”

Later that summer, Ms. Zeller would reach out to them and ask them for money.

“She called and said she needed to borrow $350 for a reason which I do not recall. I lent her the money and after some delay she was able to repay me,” Mrs. LaRue said.

Mrs. LaRue said Bobbie Jo’s asking them for money was a rare occurrence, although she would often end up receiving money from them by the end of their visits.

“Bobbie Jo does not ask for money usually. She simply describes the situation she is in, which tended to make me feel sorry for her and her son, who is a very sweet boy, and I would just feel like I had to help her out,” Mrs. LaRue said.

The next time Ms. Zeller asked the couple for money was in the spring of 2012. Then, and over the ensuing months, she requested money to get a divorce from her husband.

Several weeks later, Mrs. LaRue said, Ms. Zeller contacted them again to tell them she would deposit $1,500 into her checking account “to pay me back and give me extra money to cover the outstanding checks and for my inconvenience.”

“On a Friday she said the money was deposited and would be there by Monday because her accounts were unfroze. I believed she would come through, so I wrote multiple checks in the meantime to pay bills and I sent them out,” she said. “The money she promised never was deposited and the checks I wrote all bounced.”

Ms. Zeller again approached the couple in September with a tale about needing money to purchase school clothes for her son. Mrs. LaRue gave Ms. Zeller her JC Penney credit card, which was used to ring up about $135 in charges.

Money, though, wouldn’t be the only thing their “friendship” with Ms. Zeller would cost them, Mrs. LaRue said, adding there was one more instance when Ms. Zeller’s alleged shortfalls would affect their pocketbook.

“In 2011, Bobbie Jo had offered to give us a new couch, as we had ours for more than 30 years. She said she had a trucking service that would deliver the couch and a refrigerator and a stove for us,” she said. “We expected the items to arrive so we gave away our old couch, because we didn’t have room for two couches. The items never did arrive and my husband had to go out and buy a new couch because we run an adult home and the clients had no place to sit otherwise.”

Mrs. LaRue estimated since she and her husband met Ms. Zeller they lent her roughly $500, which she had promised to pay back.

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