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COURTESY KEITH COTTON 

This 1992 portrait of Leslie McDonald by Keith Cotton is part of a series being shown at Longbranch Café & Bakery through Nov. 12. 


Crime-and-courts
breaking top story
Former Zeigler treasurer indicted by federal grand jury on fraud, embezzlement charges

WEST FRANKFORT — A federal grand jury has indicted former Zeigler treasurer Ryan Thorpe on charges of embezzlement and wire fraud.

According to a news release sent from U.S. Attorney Donald Boyce’s office, the grand jury on Tuesday returned a five-count indictment, charging Thorpe with three counts of wire fraud and two counts of embezzlement from a local government, alleging he stole funds during his tenure as Zeigler’s treasurer.

“The indictment charges that from March 4, 2013, to August 3, 2017, Thorpe embezzled more than $300,000 by writing checks to himself drawn on the City of Zeigler’s general account,” the release reads.

It goes on to explain that, allegedly, Thorpe manipulated the checks that were in the bank documents presented to city officials.

“Thorpe ‘whited out’ his name in the payee section of the checks, wrote in the names of vendors and suppliers that the city did business with, photocopied the altered checks, placed these photocopies in the bank records kept by the city, then shredded the copies of the checks with the ‘white out,’" the report reads.

According to the release, each count of wire fraud carries with it a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and each count of embezzlement comes with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison as well as a $250,000 fine. It also indicated that the indictment seeks forfeiture of several items, including a woman’s diamond ring, property in Zeigler, a portable building, firearms, two motorcycles, two side-by-side utility vehicles and a utility trailer.

Zeigler Mayor Dennis Mitchell said he is “shocked” and “saddened” by the news.

“You still don’t want to believe it until it’s right there in front of you,” he said. He said it all felt “surreal.”

Mitchell likened his and his fellow city employee’s feelings to the stages of loss.

“We are going through these stages right now,” he said.

As for the city’s finances, though admitting in the past that money has been tight, Mitchelll said they have made theft and crime insurance claims. He said the city should recover their losses.

“Because it’s spread out over a few years we should be OK,” he said. He said the theft and crime policies are for $100,000 a year each.

On Aug. 24, FBI agents arrived to execute a warrant at the Zeigler City Hall, where they seized documents. They were later seen at Thorpe’s home, appearing to removing some of the items mentioned in the indictment.

In an emergency meeting that night, the City Council put Thorpe on unpaid administrative leave. He was later terminated from his position with the city.

Questions have swirled in town since, asking how he got away with stealing for this long. One questions posed during a special meeting in August was why was the issue was not caught during prior audits. Mitchell said he was not sure. He said Dennis Uhls, who has performed past city audits, said he stood behind his work. Mitchell said the reports did not show any missing funds.

“All tax monies were accounted for. All checks were paired with bank statements to verify those,” Mitchell said the auditor told him. The most recent completed audit was through April 30, 2016.

Mitchell said Thorpe would have potentially had a hand in gathering information to be delivered to the audit team.

Mitchell said a special audit from Uhls, which was called for after the visit from the FBI, will be on his desk Oct. 13. He said based on their own internal investigation in the weeks since the news, they had similar findings to what the FBI investigation has brought to light.

Thorpe will appear at the federal courthouse in Benton Oct. 19 for arraignment.


Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Kaden Hundely sweeps dust off the grill of his tractor after he unloaded into soy beans from a grain cart into a trailer Wednesday along Arbeiter Road, Murphysboro. Hundley was just one of several farmers helping harvest the Arbeiter farm after the untimely death of farmer Ben Arbeiter.


Murphysboro
alert featured
He died tragically 2 months ago. His friends helped his family harvest 1,400 acres in his absence.

MURPHYSBORO — Lugging two flat totes filled with food, Alinda Heron made her way across a field littered with the remains of cut soybean plants, the red soil sinking at each foot step.

The totes were filled with baggies of sandwiches, carrots, chips, cream pies and other snacks for the crew that numbered two dozen, who had gathered at her family's farm Wednesday to help with the harvest.

Arbeiter

It was bittersweet, this outpouring of support for her family. Until their lives changed, it might very well have been her 40-year-old brother, Ben, working with her father to start the harvest of the soybeans. Ben Arbeiter lost his life in a tragic accident with an antique tractor in the early morning hours of Aug. 6.

"It's one of the greatest days of my life to see how Ben's friends came together to (make this happen)," Ben's father, David, said, standing at the edge of one of the fields northeast of Murphysboro. "You don't see it on TV — this is the good news."

In the distance, plumes of a dusty red cloud hung in the air, the byproduct of the combine cutting the two-feet-high soybean plants, leaving behind the bare nubs of what once was. Plumes of dust were also kicked up in the air from the combines cutting the soybeans behind the family's house on Arbeiter Road.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

One of almost a dozen combines harvest soy beans Wednesday on a Jackson County farm. Farmers came together to harvest the fields of Ben Arbeiter, who died Aug. 6, 2017, when he was crushed by an antique tractor.

Alinda said around two dozen farmers and other workers came together to harvest the soybeans that were ready from the Arbeiters' crops. Ten of them drove the large combine harvesters through the beige-bronze fields to cut the soybean plants, seven others operated auger carts, or buggy trucks, which took the soybeans from the combines, and 11 others drove the large semi-trailers that transported the harvested soybeans to a grain operator.

The work contributed would have taken her brother and father about six weeks to complete, she noted. Heron said her family was so encouraged by the farming community's embrace — displayed with the physical labor to harvest the crops.

"This isn't about us," she said. "It's about the community, the farmers that came together."

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Kaden Hundley climbs climbs up on the cab to talk to Tim Hicks as Hundley loads harvested soy beans into Hick's semi-trailer Wendesday in Jackson County. Hundley and Hicks are just two of several who came out to help after the death of Ben Arbeiter.

Just what farming communities do

Those working Wednesday were doing so in honor of Ben, born Benjamin David Arbeiter on July 7, 1977. Ben died after an antique tractor accident on his property in the early morning hours of Aug. 6. In addition to his father, mother and sister, he is survived by his wife of almost four years, Holly, another sister, Rhonda Kings, and her husband; nieces and nephews; his mother-in-law and other relatives.

He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was a trustee of the Somerset Township Board.

When he thought about the pending harvest, Ben's father, David Arbeiter, said he thought about hiring someone to bring in the crops.

"I was going to hire a visiting operation to come in and do it," David said. "And Ben's friend Mike (Imhoff) said, 'No, you're not, we've got it all taken care of.'"

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Soy beans are seen through a window on a grain cart in a field along Abeiter Road, Murphysboro Wednesday. Farmers came out to help harvest the crops on the Arbeiter farm after the untimely death of Ben Arbeiter.

As soon as word spread about Ben's death, local farmers started calling to offer their help, Imhoff said. Such efforts are not uncommon in the farming community, he said, noting that he has not been able to participate in one until now.

Assisting with the planning was one of Ben's business associates, Tony Boyle.

"Ben would have done the same thing for my family that I'm doing for his," said Imhoff, who served as best man at Ben's wedding almost four years ago. "And that's why I'm doing it. I'd rather Ben be here and (harvesting) his own property."

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Soy beans are transferred from a grain cart into a trailer along Arbeiter Road, Murphysboro with the water tower of the closed Murphysboro youth facility.

David said he is committed to keeping the farm in business. 

"We're going to keep the farming operation going," he said. "We're just going to have to adjust."


Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Two farmers who were some of the volunteers who came out Wednesday to help harvest the fields at the Arbeiter Farm after the untimely death of Ben Arbeiter.


Keith Cotton 

Leslie McDonald poses with tomatoes for a portrait in 2006. 


Crime-and-courts
top story
Franklin County
4 arrested in Franklin County after allegedly stealing, killing piglets; at least 1 piglet allegedly thrown from overpass

BENTON — Franklin County deputies arrested four people on charges of theft and animal torture after they allegedly stole piglets and then killed them, in some cases by beating them, striking them with a rake, and throwing one off an overpass.

According to a news release from Franklin County Sheriff Don Jones, two juveniles were arrested alongside 18-year-old Trenton H. Bennett, of West Frankfort, and 20-year-old Brendan A. Shaputis, of Ewing. The two are charged with theft and animal torture, both Class 3 felonies.

The release said the four individuals on Sunday allegedly stole about 30 piglets, which were about 5 to 7 days old, from the Logan Sow Center, which “were later destroyed by the suspects in a variety of ways.”

According to an information sheet filed Oct. 4, Bennett is alleged to have “tortured multiple piglets, causing the death of the piglets, by throwing a piglet off an overpass and kicking, beating and striking the remaining piglets with a rake until death.”

The same document indicated that the pigs had a value in excess of $500.

Shaputis is also accused of killing piglets in the same manner as Bennett.

The news release said while the juveniles have been released to their families, Bennett and Shaputis are being held in the Franklin County Jail on $45,000 bond.

There was not a court date for either Bennett or Shaputis listed on Judici as of Wednesday evening.