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Ex-teacher pleads guilty to theft from fire district
A retired Osoyoos schoolteacher has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $40,000 from the Osoyoos Rural Fire Protection District.
Michael McWhinnie, 67, was charged several months ago with fraud and theft over $5,000 and pleaded guilty to the theft charge at the Penticton Courthouse after admitting to misappropriating more than $40,000 during his time on the board with the rural fire protection district.
McWhinnie, who taught at Osoyoos Elementary School for more than 30 years, is scheduled to make his next court appearance on June 4, when it’s expected a date for a sentencing hearing will be set.
Crown counsel Catherine Crockett said the court ordered a pre-sentence report and she expects the report will be ready for the judge handling this case in time for the next court appearance in early June.
McWhinnie offered no excuses about why he stole the money or why he would engage in criminal behavior after leading an exemplary life as a teacher and respected community volunteer, except to say he has been battling depression for years.
“I have very little recall of what I did and I honestly can’t remember what I did,” he said. “I’ve been struggling for some time now and I’m 67 years old and really can’t fathom why I would do something like this, but depression is a mindboggling thing. It really is.”
Because of his difficult childhood, McWhinnie said he suffered from depression at an early age, but kept his issues and problems to himself.
“I basically raised myself from the age of five or six,” he said. “I put myself through university and went on to become quite successful, despite all of the issues I was failing to deal with.
“I grew up in Vancouver and in those days there was basically nowhere to turn (for dealing with mental health issues). It wasn’t until much later that I got some professional help.”
McWhinnie reiterated that he is very remorseful for what he has done, even though he has little recollection of making a conscious decision to steal money from an organization he was committed to.
“I just don’t understand why this has happened because I didn’t need the money at all,” he said. “When my lawyer informed me of how much I took, I was shocked.”
McWhinnie said he’s confident that his family and good friends will remain loyal during this very difficult period.
“I have a very understanding wife who has been a pillar of strength throughout my life and has been extremely supportive through this ordeal and other things I’ve had to deal with,” he said. “I also have friends who will stay with me and support me through this and there will be others who will be critical and I guess they really weren’t my friends after all.”
Some of his best qualities as a teacher were being able to assist children dealing with emotional issues because of his own personal experience, said McWhinnie.
McWhinnie said he will continue to volunteer for local church organizations and hopes the majority of longtime residents of Osoyoos he knows will forgive him for taking this money.
McWhinnie is a founding member of the local Kinsmen Club and has been volunteering with numerous community organizations for the past 40 years.
McWhinnie said he has repaid almost the entire amount of stolen money since being charged.
Bob Appleby, the secretary-treasurer of the five-person board with the rural fire district, said he took over the position when McWhinnie indicated he would be retiring from the board several months ago.
Appleby said “almost all of the money has been returned, but not all of it.”
If there is a small amount outstanding, McWhinnie said his lawyer hasn’t informed him because he wants to repay every penny.
“We needed someone to take over as secretary-treasurer, so I volunteered … and I found some irregularities,” said Appleby.
He reported those irregularities to board chair Jim Campbell and the remaining board members decided they had sufficient information to contact the RCMP, said Appleby.
The RCMP launched an investigation in late October and McWhinnie was charged several weeks later.
Appleby called the case “a very unfortunate incident” but said he had a responsibility to the board and the approximately 800 property owners represented by the rural fire district to report the financial irregularities.
McWhinnie made his first court appearance on March 5 and pleaded guilty to the theft over $5,000 charge a couple of weeks ago.
McWhinnie said he “has been dealing with some pretty serious issues” since he was a young child and has finally sought professional counselling to help him deal with depression and other mental health issues.
“It’s going to surprise some people and it won’t surprise some others” when they discover he was involved in misappropriating these funds, said McWhinnie.