Here's why a woman said she stole more than $250,000 from a cancer nonprofit on the Coast

Melinda Rosetti-Spence, 53, was arrested Dec. 6, 2016, by Harrison County Sheriff's Office on a charge of embezzlement by trust.
Melinda Rosetti-Spence, 53, was arrested Dec. 6, 2016, by Harrison County Sheriff's Office on a charge of embezzlement by trust.

A woman who wrote checks to herself from a nonprofit bank account said in court Monday that she had a gambling problem.

Melinda Rosetti-Spence, 53, pleaded guilty in Harrison County Circuit Court to embezzling $266,598.96 from the Pink Heart Funds, which gives wigs and prostheses to cancer patients.

Circuit Judge Lisa Dodson accepted her tearful plea, in which Rosetti admitted stealing donations and writing checks to herself from March 2015 to July 2016.

"I had a gambling problem, and I spent it on bills," Rosetti told the judge.

Long Beach Police arrested Rosetti after a bank teller told founder JoAn Nicely a check had bounced.

Assistant District Attorney Jason Josef said she had gambling and alcohol problems and gambled the money away.

"She had nothing left," he said.

Rosetti was the volunteer treasurer and event planner for the group, based in Long Beach.

She could hardly speak without crying as she answered Dodson's questions.

Had the case gone to trial, prosecutors would have proven Rosetti obtained the money through "over 100 checks and she spent it on herself," Josef said.

Nicely said she is relieved that Rosetti has pleaded guilty, "but I feel victimized all over again, not just for me, but for all the cancer patients we try to help.

"I still cannot comprehend she would take the money so many donors had given to help cancer patients and others we serve."

More than a dozen recipients of wigs joined Nicely in the courtroom.

One of them, Kelly Moore, told Dodson she had lost her hair due to a medical condition at the age of 15, 10 years ago. Pink Heart Funds has made sure she has a wig in good condition.

"It is utterly unconscionable," Moore said of the theft of funds.

Rosetti and her attorney said she can pay a little more than $80,000 toward restitution. Rosetti has given the Circuit Clerk's Office $24,000 which can now be turned over to the group. Also, she has access to $50,000 and has saved $6,500 for restitution, Rosetti said.

The group's insurance company has not paid a penny yet, Josef said. The insurance company should be able to pay about $100,000, he said.

Allowing Rosetti to remain out on bond will allow her to work to save more money for restitution, said her attorney, Lewie "Skip" Negrotto.

Rosetti said she has been doing disaster relief work, some in Miami, and may have a chance to work in Puerto Rico.

"That's not going to happen," Dodson said. Leaving the state before sentencing is not allowed, she said.

Rosetti remains free on a $50,000 bond pending sentencing on July 2, 2018.

The state is recommending a 20-year prison term, with 10 suspended, plus restitution, Josef said.

Dodson told Rosetti to brace herself for prison time.

Nicely thanked those who showed up in court to show their support for her and the fund.

"This is a big relief. I want to thank all of you who showed up," she said.

Long Beach police arrested Rosetti on Aug. 16, 2016. She was arrested again after indictment on Dec. 6, 2016. Rosetti told the judge she has spent 143 days in jail already.

Robin Fitzgerald can be reached at 228-896-2307 or @robincrimenews