Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Beaver Charity Founder Charged with Diverting Funds

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Beaver Charity Founder Charged with Diverting Funds

Article excerpt

A Beaver man is expected to plead guilty to using money donated to help terminally ill children and their families for other reasons, including paying his bills, remodeling his house and buying $3,600 worth of Pirates baseball tickets.

The U.S. attorney's office Thursday said Steven R. Wetzel, executive director of the Hero Program, misspent about $91,000 in grant money and donations between September 2009 and December 2014.

He is expected to plead guilty, his attorney, Steven M. Toprani, said Thursday night.

Mr. Wetzel, 39, was involved in the start of the Courage for Life Foundation, which provides "sporting opportunities for student athletes with life-threatening illnesses," in May 2008. The idea for the foundation came out of a conversation Mr. Wetzel had with John Challis after Mr. Challis, whom he used to coach on the Freedom High School baseball team, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Mr. Challis, whose battle received national attention, died in August 2008 at age 18, and Mr. Wetzel and the Courage for Life Foundation later parted ways.

"The Hero Program has nothing to do with the Courage for Life Foundation," said Scott Challis, Mr. Challis' father. "Steve went out and did his own thing."

Mr. Wetzel's charity was established in 2009. It operated through the Frontline Initiative, a nonprofit tax-exempt organization in Beaver County.

State Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, who with his wife donated money to it, called the charges "a shock."

"All along thinking we were going to help kids like Johnny Challis," Mr. Christiana said Thursday evening. "The hope was to help those terminally ill children and their families deal with their circumstances. It's obviously a kick in the stomach when you find out what you're working so hard for wasn't actually happening behind the scenes."

Mr. Christiana also attended fundraisers -- including a pizza- eating contest -- and ran races benefiting the charity.

"There are a lot of disappointed families and individuals in Beaver County, one of which would be the Christiana household."

Websites for the Hero Program and the Frontline Initiative were both down Thursday night, though Facebook pages related to the nonprofits were still available. …

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