Crime

Update: Pink Heart founder devastated over $235K embezzlement — and who’s accused

Whitney Barnhardt, 9 of Lumberton, Mary Michael Sullivan, 11 of Gulfport, and Abigail Ramirez, 8 of Pass Christian cut pigtails off of Pink Heart Funds founder JoAn Niceley in 2011.
Whitney Barnhardt, 9 of Lumberton, Mary Michael Sullivan, 11 of Gulfport, and Abigail Ramirez, 8 of Pass Christian cut pigtails off of Pink Heart Funds founder JoAn Niceley in 2011. Sun Herald File

The founder of a nonprofit group that provides wigs for cancer patients said she was devastated when a bank teller told her the Pink Heart Funds account of $235,000 had been wiped out.

And it was a blow to learn the woman suspected of embezzling the money is a volunteer who had proven herself to be an effective treasurer and event coordinator, JoAn Nicely said.

Police arrested Melinda Rosetti-Spence, 52, Tuesday after a bank review indicated Spence had written herself 135 checks, Nicely said.

“I never saw it coming,” she said. “Apparently she kept her own set of records and showed me a fake ledger. She kept putting off meetings with our (certified public accountant) and had come up with excuses the past couple of weeks when I asked her to show me paperwork. I was starting to see red flags. But I didn’t see this coming.”

Rosetti-Spence is one of two Long Beach women arrested on unrelated embezzlement charges this week.

Michelle Fowler, 43, is accused in the embezzlement of more than $3,400 from a Long Beach business, Police Chief Wayne McDowell said.

Fowler, arrested Monday, was convicted in 2010 of embezzling from a Long Beach church.

Both women were booked at the Harrison County jail.

Justice Court Judge Melvin Ray set Fowler’s bond at $20,000. Justice Court Judge Diane Ladner set Rosetti-Spence’s bond at $200,000.

Pink Heart Funds in 10th year

Nicely, a cancer survivor undergoing related health issues, founded the group to provide wigs to children and women cancer patients. All of the staff are volunteers.

“None of us get a paycheck,” she said.

“We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this month. Now, we’re wiped out. All we have is our inventory.”

Nicely said she and her board of directors asked Rosetti-Spence to take over the treasurer’s duties in January 2015. The treasurer at the time had learned her cancer had returned. And Nicely soon had a mini-stroke.

“Melinda told us she had helped open seven businesses after Hurricane Katrina,” Nicely said.

“Her work for us was perfection. She organized our office and promoted our events. We never suspected a thing.”

135 checks placed before her

Nicely, a hair stylist, was coloring a client’s hair when a bank called to say a check from the group’s account was about to bounce.

“I told her that was impossible,” she said. “The woman called me back and told me to come to the bank right away.”

Nicely said it broke her heart to see images of the cashed checks placed in front of her.

“She didn’t steal from me,” Nicely said. “She stole from cancer patients.”

Nicely said the checks were cashed at different banks in an apparent effort to conceal the crimes.

The money went missing from March 2015 through this week, the police chief said.

Pink Heart accepts ponytail donations of 10 inches or longer and uses donations of corporate sponsors and fundraiser proceeds to make wigs. Proceeds from the Hope Chest, a consignment shop Nicely runs with two other women, also benefit Pink Heart efforts.

Pink Heart provides wigs on request for women and children living in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

“I can assure everyone that we will get a certified treasurer so this will never happen again,” Nicely said. “I promise you that.”

Old embezzlement, new charge

In the other case, Michelle Fowler faces a charge she stole money from a business where she worked on Klondyke Road, McDowell said.

Fowler made headlines in 2009 and 2010. She was convicted of embezzling nearly $156,000 from First Baptist Church of Long Beach over about three years, Sun Herald reports show.

Fowler’s last name at the time was Calliham and she was the church bookkeeper. She had leukemia and was a single mother of three children. A Harrison County Circuit Court judge sentenced her to one year of house arrest and set up a restitution hearing.

Money from the Long Beach business started disappearing in July, McDowell said.

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

To help the Pink Hearts Fund

  • Donations can be processed online at pinkheartfunds.org
  • Call 228-575-8299
  • The group accepts pony tails of 10 inches and longer
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