An Angel Tree volunteer who police say stole Christmas presents meant for children with parents in prison surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning.
Charabe Melody Allison, 46, also known as Charabe Allison-Lampert, was freed after posting $2,000 bail Tuesday evening on a Class A misdemeanor charge of theft from a nonprofit. Waco police said the Lorena woman took gifts set aside for children and returned them to the store for credit.
Project Angel Tree Central Texas, is part of a nationwide program operated by Virginia-based nonprofit Prison Fellowship. Angel Tree allows parents behind bars to provide wish lists for their children. The lists are vetted by Prison Fellowship’s central office and are then displayed on angels hung on Christmas tree in malls and other locations. Donors are encouraged to buy items on the lists, which usually cost $20 or less, or provide money or gift cards. Angel Tree volunteers then distribute items to families.
According to the arrest affidavit, Allison would either give donated clothing to her own family members or exchange the items at stores for gift cards.
Allison is charged with returning items donated to Angel Tree on Jan. 5 to Justice, a girls clothing store in the Central Texas Marketplace. She received in-store credit and then eight days later, she returned other suspected donated items to the store for in-store credit, the affidavit states.
Witnesses called Waco police in January reporting a possible theft from Angel Tree when they learned Justice clothing was returned to the store.
“(A witness) stated on 1/13/19, a female named (Charabe) Lampert went to Justice and had a sack of clothes that she wanted to return because her ‘grandmother had bought her daughter the clothes and they did not fit her daughter,’” a police report states. “(The witness) stated Ms. Lampert had the receipts with her and told the employee at the store that she wanted store credit for her returns.”
In late February, Allison returned to Justice and used the in-store credit, which totaled $181.82, “for personal gain,” the affidavit states.
In an unusual twist, the items had been donated to Angel Tree by a Justice store employee who used her employee discount to purchase them, the employee’s husband told the Tribune-Herald. He asked not be named because he feared repercussions by Angel Tree officials.
He said Justice managers “red-flagged” the items because store policy precludes employees from returning items. The irregularity surfaced when managers asked his wife about the returned items, he said.
“It was a pure coincidence,” said the husband, who has talked with police on the case. “If the store didn’t have that rigid policy to red-flag returns from employee purchases, it never would have happened this way.”
Waco attorney Seth Sutton, who represents Allison, said he was notified Monday of the warrant for Allison, and they made arrangements for her to surrender at the jail Tuesday morning.
“I don’t know much about the case at this point or what the allegations are, but I am looking forward to diving in and finding out more about it,” Sutton said.
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said there is no evidence at this time that anyone else from the local Angel Tree program was involved in wrongdoing, despite the fact that department incident reports list a second suspect with the organization.
Jim Forbes, communications director for Prison Fellowship, said Angel Tree is one of the many programs under the nonprofit group’s umbrella.
He said financial controls implemented for Angel Tree and other groups are done at their central office in Lansdowne, Virginia, adding that finances are audited and “very strictly monitored.”
“The woman in charge of that office denied any connection to what happened,” Forbes said. “We obviously are upset by the action of the volunteer, if she is found guilty. However, Prison Fellowship was founded 43 years ago to serve men and women and their families who are separated by crime or incarceration. That is why we exist. We will pray for the woman and her family as we move forward and it will not affect the Angel Tree program in that area. In fact, we plan to deliver more gifts to children in the Central Texas area than ever before.”
There are Angel Tree programs in all 50 states. Last year, they served more than 300,000 nationwide, Forbes said. Closer to home, Angel Tree served 33,845 kids in Texas, 6,901 children in a six-county Central Texas area and 688 children in McLennan County, Forbes said.