The Gene Autry Town Council received unwelcome news at its meeting Tuesday evening that filled the already packed room with more tension.
First Assistant District Attorney Heather Cooper announced Tuesday that the District Attorney’s office was dropping charges filed against the former Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum Director Elvin Sweeten. The news was a blow for the small community’s leaders as they were hoping they would finally have the answer to where the museum’s missing $35,000 went in 2014-15.
Last year the DA’s office filed charges against Sweeten for embezzlement, Cooper said. Before the charges were dropped, the DA had substantial evidence that Sweeten used museum funds to purchase an LG refrigerator and a few other items for his personal use with museum funds. However, Cooper said new evidence makes it less likely to prove.
“We dismissed the charges this morning,” Cooper said. “There is no way I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he embezzled the refrigerator or possessed it with any intent to defraud.”
Key witnesses in the case, who originally said Sweeten forged their signatures on a museum board application, have recanted saying they gave Sweeten permission to include their names. Cooper also said in an email sent to Mayor Kyle Lawson, given to the Ardmoreite by Lawson and authenticated by Cooper, that she recently came into receipt of a check that shows Sweeten attempted to reimburse the museum for the money spent on the refrigerator on the same day it was purchased in 2009.
A second check receipt, from Sweeten’s personal account on the night of his resignation, attempted to cover yet again the amount for the refrigerator and other things for which he was accused of embezzling funds.
“It is possible the jury will see Mr. Sweeten as a man who got his paperwork confused, which is certainly a problem but not embezzlement,” Cooper wrote in the email. “I realize it is suspected that Mr. Sweeten took many things that were unaccounted for, however when I filed charges I only included things I could prove, which is what I’m mandated to do under the law. Since that time, based on many circumstances, I no longer believe that I can prove even those things to a jury.”
Cooper stressed that the DA can only bring charges if they are sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person is guilty of the crime.
At the meeting, the museum’s Executive Director Leslei Fisher questioned where the money, which was given to the museum through a Southern Oklahoma Development Association grant, went. She told the council that the museum’s bank account was “nearly empty” when she took over.
“The problem is, our witnesses are just regular citizens,” Lawson said. “We have people saying he did one thing, he has people saying otherwise. So it has become an us versus them. We went from having enough to file charges against him for six felonies, to two misdemeanors and now nothing.”
The council discussed their options moving forward and are considering taking Sweeten to civil court, but any action on that remains to be seen.
“I have to disagree with the DA,” town councilman Robert Gilio said. “If I robbed a bank in Ardmore today and returned the money tomorrow, a jury would still find me guilty of bank robbery.”