CHEER center director fired, arrested

Longtime Coastal Leisure CHEER Center Director Sheree Stephens is no longer working at the Ocean View senior center, after being arrested at the center Jan. 11 on theft and other charges and led away from her workplace in handcuffs by state police.

Stephens was charged with felony theft and falsifying business records after she allegedly stole funds and removed business records from the local senior center.

On Friday, Jan. 11, state troopers were dispatched to the CHEER Senior Center on Cedar Neck Road to investigate a reported internal theft. Upon arrival, police said, troopers contacted several administrators who were there to complete an annual audit.

Auditors told police numerous irregularities were found and several business records were missing. The auditors identified the center’s director, Sheree R. Stephens, 50, of Ocean View, as the suspect. An examination of business records revealed more than $7,000 in missing funds, police said.

Cpl. Wes Barnett, public information officer for the Delaware State Police, said a consent search of Stephens’ vehicle revealed many of the missing documents. A prescription pill bottle containing prescription drugs was also located in the vehicle, he said. Those pills belonged to a nurse employed by the senior center.

Barnett said Stephens told police she found the prescription bottle in the parking lot of the center and placed it in her vehicle. He said Stephens later provided a written statement to troopers admitting to taking the funds because of financial troubles she was having at home.

During the investigation, Stephens was also identified as a suspect who allegedly stole a wallet from a 68-year-old Ocean View woman. That alleged incident occurred at the center on Monday, Jan. 7, at 3:45 p.m. Stephens did not admit to stealing the victim’s wallet, Barnett said.

Stephens was formally charged on Jan. 11 with two counts of theft (felonies), theft (misdemeanor) and falsifying business records by altering, erasing, deleting, or removing business records (misdemeanor). Stephens was arraigned and released on $6,500 unsecured bond.

Wallet theft fuels rumors

The center’s regular Monday afternoon bridge tournament was the setting for one incident, at which one of the center’s members — a bridge player — allegedly had her wallet stolen.

CHEER Center member Wanda Powell, who plays at the weekly tournament, was a witness to what happened that day. The victim of the alleged theft was a new acquaintance with whom she was playing bridge for the first time.

“We were getting ready to leave. Some people had gone outside already. But people who think they’re in the money stay and wait until they get the final results. A few of us left,” Powell recalled. “She went out and came back in, and was just hysterical because her wallet was gone.”

Powell said her bridge partner had taken her wallet out of her pocketbook while she played, placing it on a chair next to her, under the table. With the wallet discovered missing, Powell said the woman running the bridge tournament told them she would call police.

At that point, Powell said, Stephens was also present and commented that it was the fourth time something like that had happened.

“I asked her if the cops had been called,” Powell said. “She didn’t answer.”

Powell said she had not witnessed anyone eating at nearby tables approach the victim’s table during the time she was there, but she offered to Stephens to describe them if police were interested in the information.

With the victim of the alleged theft distraught, Powell said she also suggested that the woman look in her pocketbook again, to ensure she hadn’t overlooked the wallet inside. The victim found her checkbook — which she had previously thought to also be missing — but did not locate her wallet. A check of the victim’s car also did not turn up the missing wallet.

“Sheree started putting on rubber gloves and she suggested they go check the trash,” Powell said. “When she came back in, she had all of the cards, but no money and no wallet.”

Powell said the victim had been relieved to have recovered her credit cards and ID, saying the missing cash was immaterial but that the work to replace missing cards and ID would have been monumental.

According to Powell, Stephens then helped the victim clean off the cards, which she declared dirty from their time in the trash receptacle.

“They sat there and each one of them handled each card and wiped them off,” Powell recalled. Assured by the victim that she didn’t need to stay, Powell left the center.

Later, Powell said, she learned from the woman who runs the bridge games that police had come and arrested Stephens in connection with the alleged theft of the money from the victim’s wallet, taking her from the CHEER Center in handcuffs. Powell was told that anyone who belonged to the center was invited to a meeting on Jan. 17, at which staff would explain what had happened, but that meeting had been canceled due to snow and has not since been rescheduled.

In the meantime, Stephens was replaced as director of the center.

“There were different people there running the center the following Friday, and they called [the victim] out into the hallway,” Powell said. “When she came back in, I asked her if she was going to get her money back, and she said, ‘Yes, I think so. They said they have insurance for cases like this.’”

Powell said she was also told that, until the case was resolved, she should not bring anything valuable when she plays bridge at the center, that she should leave her pocketbook in her car.

“It’s such a shame for a bad name to be tacked on the leisure center,” Powell added.

Investigation ongoing into incident, other thefts

CHEER Center officials confirmed to the Coastal Point that Stephens’ employment at Coastal Leisure Center had been terminated after her arrest Jan. 11.

“The center director is no longer affiliated with CHEER,” Ken Bock, deputy director of Sussex County Senior Services, said Wednesday. “The police did arrest her, and she was charged.”

“There had been allegations of theft,” Bock said. “We investigated internally and felt there were sufficient grounds to notify police. The state police did come and are conducting their own investigation.”

Bock said agency officials were cooperating with the police investigation and would be following up on police reports. He refused to comment on whether Stephens was under suspicion in previous theft incidents at the center, such as the three previous incidents Powell said Stephens herself had mentioned on Jan. 11, or in any kind of theft from the center itself.

“There are a lot of rumors going around. I can’t really comment or speculate on those rumors,” he said. “The police are doing an investigation and we don’t want to compromise that effort.”

Bock said there were no other problems with Stephens’ employment leading up to her arrest.

“Programs are continuing on,” he emphasized. “There hasn’t been any break. The center has remained open.”