Oct 8, 2015

Prosecutors allege Cody man stole funds from Wyoming search and rescue organization

When a non-profit organization created to support Wyoming’s search and rescue operations effectively shut down, prosecutors say a Cody man took much of its remaining money for himself and his personal climbing ventures.

Donald Foote Jr., 45, is facing a felony charge of larceny by bailee.

Don Foote, looking over a map of Cody area waterfalls, in 2011. File photo courtesy Ruffin Prevost, Yellowstonegate.com
Foote is alleged to have misspent thousands of dollars belonging to the Wyoming Search and Rescue Association (WYSARA) on his rent, his cell phone bills, electronics and other items in late 2011 and early 2012.

At the time, Foote was the president and only officer of the publicly funded association, which had a mission of providing training to search and rescue responders around the state.

WYSARA had its last official function in June 2011, according to an investigation by Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agent Juliet Fish.

“What the investigation revealed (was) that ... after September of 2011 — although (Foote) spent nearly $5,000 — he did nothing; he did not ... provide any further training; he did not send out for any dues; he did not do anything to further the Wyoming Search and Rescue Association,” Fish said at a preliminary hearing in the case on Monday.

Foote’s defense attorney, Bill Simpson of Simpson, Kepler and Edwards in Cody, argued that, as the association’s only officer, Foote had discretion in what would benefit WYSARA.

With Foote presumed to be innocent, Simpson argued his client deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt for the purchases he made with association’s debit card.

“It strikes me as a little strange that you're trying to put all the negative inferences against Mr. Foote,” Simpson told Fish.

For example, hundreds of the dollars went toward Foote’s personal travel, meals and lodging at climbing or training events around the region; Simpson suggested that if Foote was traveling to promote ice climbing, getting personal certifications or receiving personal training in climbing techniques, that could have directly or indirectly benefitted WYSARA.

WSARA’s bylaws generally prohibited members from using association money for their personal expenses like transportation, but Simpson said that would be a civil issue and not a criminal one.
Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters said it did appear the prosecution lacked the evidence to show that some of Foote’s thousands of dollars of purchases were criminal.

However, the judge found that — for the purposes of a preliminary hearing, where the evidentiary standards are relatively low — there was enough evidence that Foote had misspent at least a couple thousand dollars between September 2011 and February 2012.

Waters specifically cited:

• a $960 rent payment for Foote’s home in Cody

• a $570.42 purchase at the Sheridan Walmart for two Kindle Fires, a Nintendo Wii and a DVD copy of the movie Fireproof; Foote had reportedly tried buying the items with his personal credit card at first, then put them on the WYSARA debit card when his was declined

• a $445 magazine ad for the Foote-organized Cody Ice Climbing Festival

• $431.22 in personal Verizon bills

“Clearly, those are troubling charges,” Judge Waters said, allowing the larceny charge to proceed to District Court.

WYSARA, which got funding from law enforcement agencies and donations from hunters and anglers around the state, was officially dissolved in January 2012.

In September 2011, the group’s then-treasurer ended her relationship with the association and had her name removed from the debit card, Fish said. That left Foote as the only person in control of the card.

Authorities believe WYSARA held its last official event in June 2011.
A former WYSARA member contacted Park County Sheriff Scott Steward in November 2013 with concerns about the association — noting that the association’s account had been overdrawn and closed in early 2012, charging documents say. In February 2014, Steward asked DCI to look into it.

After pulling bank records, Fish found that “many of the transactions stood out as troublesome.” The agent interviewed Foote about the purchases in September 2014.

Foote said he didn’t remember using the WYSARA account to pay his rent or for the electronics at Walmart, Fish recounted in an affidavit. As for the ad in Rock & Ice Magazine for the Cody Ice Climbing Festival, Foote said it was promoting WYSARA — though Fish said the ad made no mention of the organization.

Foote repeatedly used “we” and “they” when referring to the charges on the card, Fish said in the affidavit.

“I told Foote that I did not know who the ‘we’ was that Foote was referring to and asked if there was someone that Foote was working with,” Fish wrote. “Foote responded that was just ‘me saying we, I guess.’”

As for paying his cell phone bills with the WYSARA card, Foote said he’d used the phone for some WYSARA work and described paying the whole bill with the card as “I guess poor decision making,” Fish wrote.

Foote said his travels around the region were “just my effort or my decision to try keep things going” with WYSARA, Fish recounted in the affidavit.

When explaining the purchases to DCI agents, Foote initially referred them as decisions that were made by “we” or “they,” but he ultimately said that was just “me saying we, I guess,” charging documents allege.

Sheriff Steward reportedly approached DCI after seeing a flyer for the 2014 Cody Ice Climbing Festival. The flyer advertised an “8th annual Wyoming Search and Rescue silent auction” — although the association had been dissolved two years earlier.

“We were trying,” Foote reportedly told Fish of the auction, adding, “We had a tent that was donated by one of the sponsors and they were trying to do something, but it never happened.”

Foote said he didn’t know what had happened to the tent and that no money had been raised, the affidavit says.

He reportedly said he’d also tried running a fundraising for WYSARA in 2012, but didn’t raise any money then, either.

Foote’s next court appearance will be an arraignment in District Court, where he’ll enter a plea. He is free on his own recognizance.


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