Feds charge local woman with extortion

CALCUTTA – A local woman was taken into custody Friday by the Wheeling office of the FBI in relation to an embezzlement case at Bethany College.

Charged with extortion, Rachelle Weese, 26, was escorted to a waiting FBI vehicle outside her Cricket Lane home by St. Clair Township Police Chief Don Hyatt after FBI and township officers converged on the house in the early afternoon.

According to William J. Ihlenfeld II, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, the federal extortion charge is a felony and alleges Weese used violence or fear to extort money from Shelly Lough, of West Liberty, former manager of the cashier’s office at Bethany College.

The criminal complaint against Weese alleges she threatened to reveal to Lough’s husband that Lough was in a relationship outside her marriage if she did not pay money.

Although original reports last October indicated the amount allegedly taken by Lough to be about $500,000, Ihlenfeld said Friday it now appears the amount may have been more than $1 million.

“A lot of money was taken from Bethany. We’re trying to account for all of it. We’ve got a number that’s substantial. We may never account for all of it,” Ihlenfeld admitted.

He said Lough allegedly began taking the money to satisfy the threats being made by Weese, not before.

Although the exact amount Weese was paid in the alleged extortion attempt is not known, Ihlenfeld said the FBI has accounted for various sums which add up to a “substantial” amount.

So far, the agency has identified from business records and other means some of Weese’s assets, including paying $35,000 cash for a new SUV and some “very expensive” jewelry totaling more than $25,000 the criminal complaint alleges were funded by money received from Lough.

A search warrant executed last year at the Cricket Lane home also turned up $262,000 in cash suspected to have come from Lough, Ihlenfeld said.

Ihlenfeld could not confirm nor deny that the other man involved in the alleged relationship with Lough was Weese’s husband, also of the Cricket Lane address, although he said, “The investigation is ongoing, and I can’t say whether anyone else will be charged.”

The missing money was discovered last May during an external audit, and Lough was initially suspected, according to earlier reports. She had worked for the college about seven years.

In October, Bethany officials said investigators quickly determined that the systematic thefts from the cash window were linked to ongoing criminal activity in Ohio, saying two people were being targeted here.

After allegedly confessing to embezzling the funds during an interview with college officials and outside accountants, Lough was immediately fired, along with Director of Finance Daniel Pajak, a 15-year financial office employee. Pajak was terminated for his lack of oversight but is not a suspect in the alleged criminal activity, officials have said.

Weese appeared Friday before U.S. Magistrate James Siebert and had a preliminary hearing set Feb. 28 before being released on bond.

Lough had been previously charged with embezzlement, and Ihlenfeld was asked whether the court will take into consideration that she was a victim of extortion, if Weese is convicted.

He said the court will be made aware that she allegedly took the money because she was scared of what might happen if she didn’t, but said, “That doesn’t wipe the slate clean.”

Lough has cooperated fully with officials, which will also be taken into consideration, he said, adding, “But, in the end, she is alleged to have taken a lot of money. The judge will have to factor all these things together.”

Ihlenfeld admitted this was a “unique case, not one we see every day,” saying stealing that much money from a college would be unusual in itself, without all the other allegations being made. He said considerable investigation was necessary to corroborate Lough’s claims of what took place.