The former president of the committee that organized Richfield's Fourth of July parade has been charged with stealing more than $27,000 from the nonprofit.
Heather Lenke, 42, of Richfield, was charged with two counts of theft in Hennepin County District Court in August. The charges were publicized by the current committee members in a post online last week.
Now, the organizers of Richfield's Fourth of July are left to try to rebuild the event after years of turmoil.
COVID-19 canceled the festival in 2020 and 2021. A scaled-down celebration was held in 2022. This summer's Fourth of July events were canceled for lack of funds because of the alleged theft. Now, the Richfield Fourth of July Event Committee just hopes its members can rebuild in time to bring back fireworks, a parade and a street dance in 2024.
"I know how hard it was for everybody last year when we had to cancel," said committee head Tina Baker. "It killed us to not be able to do it."
The Fourth of July events are entirely donation-funded, Baker said, explaining the event receives no money from the city.
So when the money was stolen, there was no backup. And now, she said, the committee has to rebuild its finances after four years of disruption.
"We're starting from scratch," said committee member Kyah Hayek. "There's nothing here."
With the festival being funded entirely by donations and run by volunteers, the committee needs a lot more of both, Baker said. A table was set up by Baker, Hayek and other committee members at Sunday's PennFest street festival in Richfield to try to drum up support.
Hayek said people are cautiously excited that Richfield's Fourth of July event could finally make a comeback.
People want to know about the missing funds, but Baker said that what little she could say about the alleged theft was posted in a statement online last week. In the statement, Baker thanked Richfield police and city officials for their help with the investigation.
"We could not have done this without their cooperation," she wrote.
She wrote in the statement last week that the Hennepin County Attorney's Office filed charges against someone.
According to the charge:
The alleged theft was discovered in November when another member of the organizing group, the nonprofit Red, White and Blue Committee, logged into the group's bank account to see just over $1 left in the account. The group had been collecting donations, but had not hosted a parade since 2019.
Withdrawals were made from the committee bank account to Lenke's personal account totaling more than $27,000, including a single transfer of $20,111.
When confronted by the other committee member, Lenke apologized for taking the money, saying she was "trying to live" and that it was "insanely wrong" to take the money. She returned $861, leaving well over $26,000 outstanding.
Baker wrote that the Fourth of July committee has instituted new controls to make sure that funds can't be taken from the bank account.
She said no one who is now on the committee is believed to have been involved in the theft.
At PennFest, Baker said she first got involved with the Fourth of July committee during an earlier scare, when it looked like the festival might not go on.
She also got involved years ago because July 4th is her mother's favorite holiday. Next summer, she said, she wants to bring back the festival for everyone in Richfield — but especially for her mother, who is in remission from cancer.
With enough donations and volunteers, Baker said, the festival will be back even better than it was before COVID-19.
But first comes the tough work of rebuilding.
"We're here, we're trying," Baker said Sunday. "We want to be able to continue this, from now until forever."