Susana Maria Arneson & husband Douglas Paul O’Berry are accused of stealing more money than the humane society acknowledged taking in
BROOKSVILLE, Florida––Former Humane Society of the Nature Coast executive director Susana Maria Arneson, 38, and her husband Douglas Paul O’Berry, also 38, a former shelter volunteer, were on February 9, 2022 charged with embezzling almost $1.6 million from the humane society.
The sum of the alleged embezzlements comes to more than twice the reported average annual income of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast over the past decade, whose net worth is according to IRS Form 990 filings only about $2.8 million, real estate included.
Allegedly used stolen money to buy a fishing tackle store
The money, the most ever allegedly stolen from a U.S. humane society in a prosecuted case, is believed to have been taken between November 2018, when Arneson was hired as Humane Society of the Nature Coast director of development, and the end of August 2021, when Arneson departed.
Arneson and O’Berry are believed to have used some of the allegedly embezzled money to buy a fishing gear store called Precision Tackle, occupying two-thirds of a building in Spring Hill, Florida, and to start an upscale boutique called Vibes by SQ in the remaining third of the building.
Married on August 28, 2021, the newly renamed Susana O’Berry and Douglas Paul O’Berry––styling himself Captain O’Berry––on August 30, 2021 introduced themselves as “the new owners of Precision Tackle!”
Bottoms Up Charters
“We live in the city of Brooksville and have three teenagers that keep us on our toes,” Arneson and O’Berry said in a joint statement.
“Doug was owner and operator of Bottoms Up Charters,” in Tarpon Springs, “and has lived in the Nature Coast area all of his life,” the introductory statement added.
Previously married in 2007, Douglas Paul O’Berry was later divorced. He declared bankruptcy in 2017.
Except for posting to social media fiery messages of support for former U.S. president Donald Trump and denunciations of previous president Barack Obama, O’Berry appears to have led a quiet life.
“She couldn’t believe it”
Documents pertaining to the Humane Society of the Nature Coast indicate founding dates in 1964, 1984, and 1996, and may suggest that it existed for 20 years or more before opening a shelter.
Whatever the history of the organization, it appears to have had a quiet existence until a series of break-ins to steal pit bulls attracted media notice in 2010.
The Humane Society of the Nature Coast then made news big time in April 2020 when on Easter Sunday burglars stole an estimate 90% of the humane society’s tools, equipment, and stored supplies, including dog and cat food, making multiple entries during the day to remove the many items taken.
“The shelter director, Susana Arneson, was in tears Monday morning when she arrived at work. She couldn’t believe it,” reported Melanie Michael of WFLA 8 On Your Side.
“You have to be heartless to steal from the voiceless”
“I just don’t understand,” lamented Arneson to Michael. “Why would someone do this? You have to be heartless to steal from the voiceless.”
Within hours of the WFLA report airing, the Humane Society of the Nature Coast was inundated by donations of equipment, supplies, and cash to more than replace everything lost.
Responding to an anonymous tip, Hernando County sheriff Al Nienhuis within 24 hours announced the arrest and confession of alleged perps Edward Lee Spear and Miranda Lou Grieves.
Sold to buy drugs & pay fines
“Detectives said Grieves told them that they sold the stolen items to pay for drugs,” followed up WFLA. “She also indicated she planned to use some of the money to pay outstanding traffic fines.
“Detectives were able to make contact with several individuals who purchased the stolen property. Those items, including the generators, leaf blower, push mower, and chainsaw, were recovered and later returned to the humane society,” WFLA added.
“Spear was charged with three counts of burglary and grand theft, and four counts of dealing in stolen property. His bond was set at $70,000.
“Investigators noted that Spear has 19 previous felony convictions spanning Florida, Michigan and Missouri for burglary, grand theft, grand theft auto, home invasion, and aggravated assault,” WFLA continued.
Spear, 45, was at last report jailed in Michigan for an unspecified federal felony.
Grieves, also 45, employed at the time at Spring Hill Health & Rehab, was charged with burglary, grand theft, and dealing in stolen property, with bond set at $22,000.
Spear and Grieves were married on June 22, 2021, Spear posted to Facebook.
Bond set at $750,000 each
In announcing the arrests of Arneson and O’Berry, Sheriff Nienhuis noted the irony that they had allegedly already siphoned $300,000 from the Humane Society of the Nature Coast when Spear and Grieves committed their break-ins––and that was just the beginning.
“According to an affidavit, Susana Maria Arneson and Douglas Paul O’Berry were arrested on one count of fraud, money laundering for a transaction of $100,000 or more, fraud-swindle-obtain property over $50,000, and first-degree grand larceny,” summarized Athina Morris for WFLA. “Their bond was set at $750,000 each.
Nienhuis told media that the alleged embezzlements were discovered when a person he did not identify discovered that there was only $1,000 left in a bank account that was supposed to have $500,000.
“Detectives noticed several checks had been written out to Arneson, totaling $219,700,” Morris reported. “She also got $108,001.98 from another bank account, according to the affidavit.
Boat, Jeep, house, face lift & tummy tuck
“After doing some digging, detectives learned the couple allegedly laundered $1,551,148.87 in total,” Morris said.
Sheriff Nienhuis identified expenditures of allegedly stolen funds including the cash purchases of a $22,000 boat, a 2020 Jeep Wrangler valued at $43,000, and a $220,000 house.
Nienhuis also mentioned international travel, “which may or may not have been related to Arneson’s change in appearance,” Nienhuis suggested.
“The sheriff added that the public could draw its own conclusions about her dramatic change in looks,” Morris continued, referencing an evident recent facelift and tummy-tuck.
“I love my Bestie Susana O’Berry”
In addition, some of the allegedly stolen money might have gone toward extravagant gifts for friends.
Posted Humane Society of the Nature Coast program manager Sarah Dieppa to Facebook on January 27, 2022, with a photo of a pair of glittery sandals, “I love my Bestie Susana Oberry. She gets me some of the most random gifts that become staples in my life.”
“We had enough information to charge [O’Berry]…so we believe that he was involved but…I would venture to say [Arneson] was at least the main player in this,” Nienhuis told WTSP-TV in Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Facing 30 years max
Added the WTSP-TV report, “The three first-degree felonies the couple is facing each carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, according to Bill Gladson, the state attorney in the fifth judicial circuit.
“Items and property from the couple have been seized by the sheriff’s office, with efforts ongoing to obtain additional search warrants, Nienhuis said.”
Air cargo from Ecuador
Born in Quito, Ecuador, and named Susana Maria de la Llana after her mother, now 72, Susana Arneson O’Berry grew up in Tampa, Florida, where her father Michael de la Llana founded a company called Ecuamerica Air Cargo in 1992.
Dissolving that company in 1998, Michael de la Llana reincorporated the business as Ecuamerica International in 1999.
Ecuamerica International reportedly had annual income of about $340,000 per year when Michael de la Llana died on July 19, 2007.
Daughter Susana was by then Mrs. Christopher Cracchiolo, listed as the registered agent for Ecuamerica Cargo Services from 2008 until the company was dissolved at the end of 2018.
Did the Humane Society of the Nature Coast get what it paid for?
Divorced from Christopher Cracchiolo, Susana was Mrs. Michael Arneson by then, raising funds for the Alzheimer’s Association at least from February 2017 to June 2017. She divorced Arneson in January 2021.
The Humane Society of the Nature Coast had by then already been looking for years for a director of development who could double as executive director.
Warren Cox, whose last stop in a 60-year career directing animal shelters was as executive director of the Florida SPCA, on December 22, 2015 forwarded to ANIMALS 24-7 for comment a Humane Society of the Nature Coast job description that he considered unlikely to attract any qualified applicants.
“They want all of this for $55,000 a year,” Cox said. “I told them I didn’t think it could be done.”
Revenue fell in first year
But Susan Arneson eventually took the job for a salary that Nienhuis said was between $53,000 and $55,125 per year.
In that capacity, Arneson collected the mail for the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, and was the only person with a key to the society’s post office box.
Donated revenue reported on IRS Form 990 in 2019, Arneson’s first full year at the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, fell from a record high of $1,674,666 in 2018 to just $763,921.
That, however, was the second most money the Humane Society of the Nature Coast had raised since 2014, when it brought it only $341,000.
Other than in 2018, the only year in which the Humane Society of the Nature Coast raised more money was 2015, when it took in $865,448.
The embezzling charges, however, suggest that Susana Arneson O’Berry discovered and took advantage of considerable fundraising potential that the society had not previously realized.
Record for convicted embezzling case may fall
The highest sum embezzled from a U.S. humane society in a convicted case known to ANIMALS 24-7 was reportedly about $1.1 million taken from the Central New York SPCA, for which former director Paul Morgan was sentenced to serve from four to 12 years, but actually served just two years before winning parole in 2018.
Morgan allegedly took between $475,000 and $600,000 himself, helping three employees to take almost $500,000 more.
One of them, Taylor Gilkey, was convicted of embezzling nearly $250,000. Another, Theresa Para, was convicted of taking $145,000. The third, Nicole Cafarchio, was convicted of taking $62,270.
Suspected but not charged
David Wills, Michigan Humane Society executive director from 1979 to 1989, resigned and was not criminally charged when the Michigan Humane Society board began inquiring into the disappearance of $1.6 million. Book-keeper Denise Hopkins was eventually convicted of embezzling $56,000 of the missing sum.
Wills in June 1999 pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from the Humane Society of the U.S., for which he had been vice president for investigations, between 1990 and mid-1995.
The Humane Society of the U.S. and the State of Maryland agreed to drop six other counts of embezzlement, alleging thefts of $84,128.
Wills’ embezzlement from the Humane Society of the U.S. was exposed by a lawsuit against him brought by three employees including current HSUS president Kitty Block. HSUS and the State of Maryland agreed to drop six other counts of embezzlement, alleging thefts of $84,128.
Wills is now doing a life sentence for sexually abusing a child.