NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A former treasurer of the Disabled American Veterans was sentenced Friday to 10 years in custody for stealing more than $100,000 from the charity.
Thomas Keller, 44, admitted at his sentencing hearing that he had stolen the funds, but offered little in the way of an explanations. For nearly every question prosecutors asked — including when he started as DAV treasurer — Keller simply responded, "I don't know."
He tried and failed to choke back tears as he offered more apologies during testimony.
"I would like to say to the veterans that I'm sorry. I'm sorry I let you down," he said. Throughout his sentencing hearing, he maintained that he stole the funds because he had been ill, lost his job and fallen behind on bills.
"Why did you steal? Did you do it to support your lifestyle?" prosecutors asked.
"I still had to pay utilities," he answered, adding that his motorcycle had been repossessed and his house foreclosed upon.
According to court records, Keller wrote questionable checks to pay off cable, phone and credit card bills, along with checks he cut to himself. Authorities say he took $160,281.99.
Keller took the money to pay his bills, himself and his ex-wife over the course of three years and 127 checks.
When prosecutors mentioned that some of the checks were written to Staples, Comcast and Verizon, Keller became almost hostile.
"With all due respect, I've already plead guilty. I've taken full responsibility," he said.
Said Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier: "It's kind of ironic that we're here on the 70th anniversary of D-Day to sentence someone for stealing from veterans. There are circumstances that required Mr. Keller to need more money. Well, who doesn't that apply to?"
Keller, who is himself a veteran, was treasurer of the Tennessee chapter and in charge of the charity's financial affairs. He served in the Army from 1989 until 1996 and was a reservist until 2006. He was promoted to treasurer in 2007.
The charity became suspicious after its leader asked Keller in 2010 for a full financial report. The report never came, and Keller dropped out of sight when an audit was ordered.
Eventually police and the U.S. Secret Service began investigating. When confronted, Keller admitted he had stolen the money.
"I started taking money from DAV in small amounts that spiraled out of control," he wrote to investigators at one point. "I understand what I did was completely wrong and fully accept responsibility for my actions. I am truly sorry for all involved that I hurt and have lost trust in me."
The members of the DAV who filled the courtroom weren't entirely convinced that Keller's apologies were sincere.
"To me it was a smokescreen," said Robert Wedge, a Lawrenceburg DAV member. "But I'm pleased it finally came to fruition even four years later."