A former Woodland fire chief and his wife were found guilty of first-degree theft by a jury Mon., March 25 in Cowlitz County Superior Court and now face a potential 10-year prison sentence.
Cowlitz County Deputy Prosecutor James Smith argued Tony Brentin, 52, and wife Sheri Brentin, 48, took advantage of 75-year-old Suzanne Taylor Moore Faveluke for more than $24,000 through late 2011. Investigators were first notified by Faveluke’s bank that unusual transactions were taking place.
According to court documents, Tony Brentin received a $5,000 check from Faveluke on Oct. 12, 2011 as a political donation for Brentin’s campaign for a seat on the Woodland City Council. Brentin went on to lose his campaign bid to Marshall Allen, who still serves on the council.
Investigators found, however, that Brentin owed approximately $4,800 to a former landlord per a Cowlitz County Superior Court judgment order. According to news reports published a few days later, Brentin had repaid the debt via check to the SunWorld Group for the full amount, leaving investigators to conclude the check Brentin received from Faveluke went to repaying the debt and not his political campaign.
The Brentins claimed to have assembled the money to repay that debt through a combination of savings and cashing out Tony’s retirement and other investments.
A review of Brentin’s bank records by investigators showed that on Oct. 3, there was a total balance of $363.57 in his account. Even with numerous deposits and withdrawals made over the following two weeks, Brentin didn’t have a balance larger than $676.25 and by Oct. 12, it had diminished to $198.39.
Over a two-week period, Shari Brentin had Faveluke make withdrawals for a total of $10,352, which Brentin said was to go toward paying veterinary bills for her cat, Mr. Socks.
Faveluke admitted to willingly providing money to Brentin to care for her cat, whom Brentin claimed had cancer and her veterinarian only accepted cash payments for treatment. The gesture came after Faveluke lost her own cherished dog to cancer and didn’t want Brentin to experience the same.
After contacting both veterinary offices that Brentin visited, Woodland Veterinary Clinic and Columbia River Veterinary Specialist, who both accept other payment types besides cash, investigators found the cat suffered from a “pleural effusion and hyperthyroidism,” but had no cancer and was otherwise healthy. The total amount charged to Brentin for veterinary services totaled $2,023.90, less than five times what Faveluke had given her.
On Dec. 23, 2011, investigators interviewed Brentin, who admitted taking money under false pretenses and using approximately $8,000 to pay off personal bills.
During the same period, U.S. Bank’s Woodland branch manager said Brentin claimed to be Faveluke’s caregiver on one occasion and also posed as Faveluke’s daughter after trying to cash a $5,000 cashier’s check at the Salmon Creek branch, after the Woodland branch would not do so.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that the Brentins targeted Faveluke, a well-known philanthropist in the Woodland area, as a means to resolve their financial issues. They were evicted from their three-bedroom home in January 2011, after failing to make $1,400 monthly rent payments in successive months. Tony Brentin said that a “personal financial situation” prevented him from paying the rent.
The Brentins’ attorneys argued that Faveluke’s age had become a factor, leading her to be confused about how and why she gave them money. The jury needed only five hours of deliberation to reach their decision and cited Faveluke’s vulnerability as a senior citizen as a substantial factor in being targeted for the theft.
Brentin testified that Faveluke gave him money willingly but had no knowledge of his wife’s attempts to gain more money through the veterinary costs for her cat. Shari Brentin did not testify during the trial on either her own behalf, or her husband’s.
With the guilty verdict, Smith said he has not made a decision on the sentence he’ll recommend to the court. Both Brentins will be sentenced on Thurs., April 18. Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Michael Evans allowed the couple to remain free until the sentencing date, but ordered them to surrender their passports.
Tony Brentin began his career as a firefighter in 1978 and served in various departments in the Pacific Northwest, including as a cadet instructor at the Clark County Fire District No. 11 in Battle Ground. He was a volunteer on Woodland’s team before becoming Woodland Fire Chief on Sept. 20, 2004. He retired from that position in 2009.