Cedarburg Art Museum director charged with embezzlement at Racine school

CEDARBURG — The executive director of the Cedarburg Art Museum is accused in Racine County of embezzling over $100,000 from a school for students with special needs.

Heather Wenthold, 42, of Cedarburg is facing three counts of theft in a business setting (greater than $10,000 – $100,000) a.k.a embezzlement, five counts of misdemeanor bail jumping, one count of felony personal ID theft and one count of computer crimes – destroying data.

“We’ve seen these kinds of charges before but nothing to the degree that we’re dealing with in this particular case,” said Supplemental Court Commissioner John Bjelajac said during Wenthold’s initial appearance in court on Thursday.

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Bjelajac agreed with Assistant District Attorney Raymond Rutz of Racine County to place Wenthold on a $50,000 cash bond.

Wenthold joined the Cedarburg Art Museum as its executive director at the beginning of this year.

On June 2, 2023, a sergeant from the Racine County Sheriff’s Office met with the president/owner/board chair of the nonprofit organization Sonnenberg Consultants, identified as F.L.S., who wanted to report that one of her employees was embezzling money, according to the complaint.

Sonnenberg Consultants has three locations in the village of Mount Pleasant, village of Pleasant Prairie and the city of Racine.

The location in Racine is known as Sonnenberg Schools at 2015 Franklin St., where the embezzlement was occurring, according to the complaint. The school provides education for kindergarten through 12th grade and primarily focuses on students with autism and other special needs.

F.L.S. stated that her principal/executive financial employee, Wenthold, had embezzled money while working at the school, according to the complaint.

Wenthold has been employed with F.L.S. since April 2019 and moved to Sonnenberg Schools when it opened in June 2022, being put in charge of the business’ financial transactions, including income and expenses.

The complaint states that F.L.S. said she first became suspicious when Wenthold approached her about three options concerning her employment; specifically the school could do a salary at a reduced part-time role, a contract with her or she could separate from the business. Wenthold stated she had family issues to attend to and became emotional about it.

According to the complaint, F.L.S. was then approached by an employee who stated Wenthold had a full-time job at the Cedarburg Art Museum while being employed full-time at Sonnenberg Schools.

The complaint states that F.L.S. then learned that Wenthold had only been physically in the school as principal a total of five times that school year as of April 2023. The employee indicated she did not come forward to report the absences of Wenthold because she was scared of her.

According to the complaint, F.L.S said Wenthold also locked her out of QuickBooks. F.L.S. was eventually granted access to QuickBooks, but only had partial access to it and could not see all the transactions.

F.L.S. also noticed that Wenthold had a PayPal account that she used for the school and when confronted about it, the PayPal account was closed, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that F.L.S. had a closed door meeting via Zoom on May 18, 2023 with the school board of Sonnenberg Schools, where it was decided they would separate Wenthold from the school. After the decision, Wenthold then joined the meeting and was advised of their decision.

According to the complaint, F.L.S. stated that when she went to disable Wenthold’s access, she found out she was locked out of the system. Her IT division was able to get into the system, and it was discovered that Wenthold started deleting data just minutes after being notified of the board’s decision.

F.L.S. stated Wenthold deleted over 5,000 files, deleted the by-laws, shut down the emails and everything she could before her access was terminated, according to the complaint.

F.L.S. stated that she believes there are over $100,000 worth of charges, bonuses, “reimbursements” and other transactions. She also indicated she is scared of Wenthold because she ruled out of fear while at the school.

According to the complaint, F.L.S. claimed that Wenthold had given herself unauthorized bonuses, gave herself a raise, paid herself four times during a month, billed the school over $5,000 for electrical work for her personal hot tub and would use various businesses for her home and then disguise the work as being for the school.

It was determined that Wenthold would charge the school for many of her house expenses, furnishings and more the complaint states. In some transactions, it was learned that Wenthold would change the receipt, change the names, put the total on it and bill it to the school when the work was actually conducted at her residence.

According to the complaint, Wenthold got a new professionally-installed basketball hoop, a dumpster, a zero-turn lawn mower with attachments, new appliances, new doors, new flooring, computers, vacations including to Hawaii and Moab, Utah almost immediately after providing herself with significant unauthorized bonuses.

Through the investigation, it was determined that Wenthold was using a credit card associated with the school in her name that was meant for school business as well as a credit card associated with the school in F.L.S.’s name.

The complaint states when investigators searched the Cedarburg Art Museum, it was noted that Wenthold furnished her office with a computer, desk and desk accessories purchased with Sonnenberg School monies.

The bail jumping refers to when Wenthold was charged with disorderly conduct with a domestic abuse enhancer in 2022, a misdemeanor. She was released from custody under bond, which ordered Wenthold not to engage in any new criminal activity/commit a new crime. The case was filed in November of 2022.

In 2017 in Waukesha County, Wenthold was also cited for issuance of a worthless check.

If convicted of the Racine County charges, Wenthold could face more than 40 years in prison and/or be fined up to $145,000.

The News Graphic reached out to Wenthold’s attorney, John Schiro, but did not hear back in time for deadline.

Cedarburg Art Museum responds

When Tom Felmer, president of the Cedarburg Art Museum Board of Directors, found out about Wenthold’s charges, he said his feelings ranged from disbelief to sadness.

“Heather has gained the trust of a lot of people in the community,” he said. “She did a lot of good things for the museum. It was a surprise to hear that.”

Felmer said the museum conducted an audit and everything seems intact and not compromised in any way.

When asked if a background check was done on Wenthold before she was hired, Felmer said they started the interview process in October of 2022 and the museum used an outside agency to review their candidates. He stated they were not made aware of any criminal activity.

Felmer added that Wenthold is on unpaid administrative leave and has been removed from any access to anything in the museum.

“Our goal is to make sure that the museum continues to operate as normal Š we’ve got a great staff and great volunteers to make that happen.” Felmer noted that the Cedarburg Art Museum is not a part of the investigation.

Wenthold’s preliminary hearing is scheduled at 9 a.m. Sept. 20.

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