Shelter director was fired following discovery of stolen cash, charity says

Kyle Hopkins

Two months before Catholic Social Services hired him to run a busy Anchorage homeless shelter, two-time felon Steven D. Sparks was accused by his wife of drug-fueled, erratic behavior.

Sparks seemed to grow angrier and more out of control each week, his wife wrote in an Aug. 30 request for a domestic violence restraining order: "I'm afraid ... I've had to put him out numerous times because he smokes crack and steals my belongings."

That warning, filed in civil court, and Sparks' criminal history gained new significance on Christmas week when employees at the Brother Francis Shelter found $8,500 missing from two locked shelter safes. Catholic Social Services learned of the missing money on Dec. 27. The charity fired Sparks and reported the theft to police on the same day, said executive director Susan Bomalaski.

"It has already led to a review of policies and procedures," Bomalaski said. "Certainly hiring is one. And so is access to safes."

A security camera caught at least a portion of the theft on tape, she said. Citing an ongoing criminal investigation by Anchorage police, Bomalaski declined to describe what the tapes show. She would not say why Sparks was fired.

Police have not named a suspect in the case and have not yet reviewed the security footage, said Sgt. Doug Pickerel, theft unit supervisor.

Hired on Oct. 31, Sparks was one of three people with access to the two safes where the money was kept, Bomalaski said. The other two are still employed at the shelter.

The fledgling theft investigation raises new questions about the way the charity screens candidates, including those with criminal records, for jobs that give them access to cash and to vulnerable populations.

Through the homeless shelter and other programs, the agency often helps people trying to overcome addictions or stay out of jail. Sometimes the shelter hires candidates who have dealt with similar problems.

"In some cases, having had a history and worked through it and overcome it can make you a good employee," Bomalaski said.

The nonprofit screens job applicants using criminal background checks, fingerprint records and interviews. Bomalaski wouldn't say what the background check on Sparks revealed.

Now 60 years old, he was convicted of felony drug possession in 2002 and served two years of probation in Washington state, according to the Washington Department of Corrections. A routine review of Sparks' Alaska state criminal record would uncover a five-year-old felony conviction for drug possession in Anchorage.

In that case, the charges say police were making a security check at the Chelsea Inn on Spenard Road early one morning in April 2007 when an officer encountered Sparks in one of the rooms. Sparks was carrying "an extremely large chunk of crack cocaine" in his pants pocket, the charges said.

He told police he was selling crack with another man, driving to various addresses in the city to make sales.

Sparks pleaded no contest to a fourth-degree drug possession charge and was sentenced to six months in prison, court records show. He served about three months, according to the state Department of Corrections.

By February 2010, Sparks was looking to be released early from probation, arguing that he had turned his life around.

"I have become a member of a local evangelical church, where I regularly attend, pay my tithes and serve on the men's usher board," he wrote in a request to be released from probation six months early.

That summer, Sparks married Ella Sparks, according to Ella's public Facebook page. Steven Sparks began working for New Life Development Inc., a nonprofit that operates a housing "re-entry" program for people leaving prison or overcoming addiction. When the Legislature in April included a $190,000 grant for New Life Development in the state 2013 construction budget, Sparks was listed as the nonprofit's point of contact, according to a state summary of the grant.

By fall 2012, something had changed.

"I don't know what he might do the way he had behaved in the last six (weeks) like he is smoking crack again," Ella Sparks wrote in the Aug. 30 request for a domestic violence restraining order.

At a court hearing related to the restraining order, Sparks said he had resigned from his job on Sept. 7. The restraining order was extended on Sept. 18. But Ella Sparks successfully asked to dissolve the order on Oct. 9, according to court records. The couple was working to rebuild their relationship, she wrote in the request.

On Halloween, Catholic Social Services hired Steven Sparks as program director for the Brother Francis Shelter, according to the shelter newsletter. The position involves running day-to-day operations at the shelter.

"(Sparks) has a fundamental understanding of the issues of homelessness, and possesses the necessary skills to run this very essential strand of Anchorage's safety net," Catholic Social Services deputy director Mary Beth Bragiel wrote in the newsletter.

Bomalaski said the decision to hire Sparks was ultimately hers. She said didn't know about the drug-use accusations revealed in the restraining order filed by Sparks' wife.

"It wasn't like were avoiding looking at anything. It just wasn't part of our hiring policies to look at some of those other databases," she said.

Filed in civil court, restraining orders are not criminal charges. They are generally not included in criminal background checks, though employers can ask researchers to look for them, said Sabrina Sawyer, executive director for Washington-state based Pinnacle Investigations. Pinnacle is the company used by Catholic Social Services to screen employee criminal records, Bomalaski said.

A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department said police officer applicants are screened for domestic violence restraining orders, while a spokeswoman for the Anchorage School District said district candidates likely are not.

Catholic Social Services' existing candidate screenings and hiring process are "very rigorous" and charity officials reviewing did not see specific changes that need to be made, she said. The charity is looking into methods of requiring that two employees be present when shelter safes are opened, she said.

As of late December, Brother Francis Shelter was providing a place to sleep for about 340 people, Bomalaski said. That included 110 who stayed overnight at Bean's Cafe.

For now, Bragiel is serving as the shelter's interim director. The money stolen from shelter safes -- one safe was locked with a key, one with a combination -- was mainly cash that the nonprofit was keeping for the people who sleep there, Bomalaski said. Some amount of petty cash also was stolen.

Catholic Social Services relies on donations for about 30 percent of its $9.5 million annual budget, Bomalaski said. A spokeswoman for the agency has said donations generally are not collected at the shelter and it appears no donation money was stolen.

The shelter will cover the cost of reimbursing clients whose cash was taken from the safes, Bomalaski said. Asked if that money will come from donations, she said it remains to be seen if an insurance policy will pay the costs.

"I've gotten several emails, phone calls, supporting us and kind of commiserating about what happened," Bomalaski said.

Multiple supporters donated a combined $1,000 to the shelter, saying they want the money to go toward covering the cost of the theft, she said.

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