ST. LOUIS (AP) - Two former top St. Louis parks officials could face decades in federal prison after admitting Monday that they stole nearly half a million dollars from the city since 2005, using a sham company to conceal bogus invoices for materials and services.
Thomas "Dan" Stritzel, the city's 43-year-old chief park ranger, and the deputy parks commissioner, Joseph Vacca, 55, each pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud related to the theft of roughly $465,000.
Each felony count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 12.
A May indictment alleged that from January 2005 through the end of last year, Stritzel and Vacca used false or inflated invoices to funnel the pilfered city funds through sham companies. Prosecutors say they spent the money on vehicles, paying off credit card debt, and other expenses.
At the time of the indictment, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay called the allegations against "two senior guys" - Stritzel had worked for the city since 1996, Vacca since 1989 - disappointing and said they were placed on forced, unpaid leave, pending disciplinary proceedings. Maggie Crane added that "If these charges are true, they deserve everything they get for betraying the public trust."
Crane said then that city leaders only learned of the possible wrongdoing not long before Stritzel and Vacca were arrested, after the FBI had asked the city to hold off on its own investigation until the indictment came. Crane said it's not clear yet how the alleged theft could go on for so long without being detected, though she pledged there would be an investigation into how it happened and why it happened for so long.
Messages left Monday with Crane at her office and on her cellphone were not immediately returned.
A statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis listed Stritzel and Vacca as former employees of the city, though it did not indicate whether they had resigned or were fired.
Court records show that Vacca filed for bankruptcy in late 2009, saying he had liabilities - largely in the form of mortgage payments and credit card bills - that were hundreds of thousands of dollars more than his assets.