Volunteer pleads guilty to stealing $50,000 from Bel Air organization

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Mark Yelen, accused of stealing $50,000 from a Bel Air organization that worked with youths with special needs, pled guilty Friday on what was supposed to be the fourth day of his jury trial in Harford County Circuit Court.

Yelen, 46, of Aberdeen, worked with P&J's Life Skills LLC, which had been founded by Patterson Mill High School graduates, Phil Givens and Jon Williams. The organization ran camps and other activities for special needs youngsters in Harford and Cecil counties, but abruptly closed in early 2016.

The trial, which retired Judge Stephen Waldron presided over, began Tuesday with jury selection and featured testimony from the company founders Wednesday and Thursday.

Yelen was scheduled to testify Friday, but he entered his guilty plea around 11 a.m. that morning, according to the prosecutor, Assistant State's Attorney Mark Meehan.

The plea was unexpected, but Meehan said he thinks "it gave a good resolution to the case."

He noted he has been working on the case for about two years, but the company founders, Givens and Williams, have been dealing with the thefts for longer.

"Phil and Jon have been dealing with this since 2014, so I feel like this is an appropriate resolution to the case and a little bit of a vindication for them," Meehan said Friday afternoon.

Yelen was charged with theft between $10,000 and $100,000 and theft-scheme between $10,000 and $100,000.

He pleaded guilty to the theft-scheme charge, and he agreed to serve two years in state prison, according to Meehan. The state, defense and judge all approved the plea agreement.

"I think the deal made the most sense for everybody," Yelen's attorney, David Henninger, of Bel Air, said of the plea agreement.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30 in Circuit Court, with Waldron presiding, according to Meehan. He said the hearing will give people associated with P&J's Life Skills, such as parents of children the organization helped, a chance to give victim impact statements.

Yelen worked with P&J's from January to September of 2014. He was not a paid employee — a fact Henninger stressed when cross-examining Williams in court Thursday afternoon — but he volunteered his services.

"He volunteered to help them out because he liked what they were doing for the community," Meehan said.

Yelen took the money over eight months using a company-issued debit card and checks written from a company account, according to Meehan.

Williams testified in court Wednesday about the thefts, explaining for Meehan each unauthorized debit card expense and each unauthorized check. He pointed out how Yelen had forged his signature on some of the checks.

The amounts ranged from about $2,300 to $5, and most were for everyday expenses, such as purchases at Walgreens, restaurants and the Apple iTunes Store.

One $300 check had been made out to Yelen's daughter's preschool in Fallston, Williams noted.

P&J's closed Jan. 1, 2016, according to the organization's Facebook page, on which updates about the trial have been posted.

"They actually had to shut down because of this [theft]," Meehan said. "By the time Phil and Jon noticed it, they were approximately $50,000 in debt."

Givens and Williams began working with students with special needs when they were students at Patterson Mill. They spent their lunch periods with students in special needs classes, and they encouraged other students to do the same thing, according to a July 2013 profile of P&J's in The Aegis.

Their efforts grew into a three-day-a-week program involving about 60 Patterson Mill students, as well as faculty, administrators and employees of local businesses, teaching their disabled classmates social and cooking skills and holding activities every Friday.

Givens and Williams formed P&J's after they graduated from high school. They formed their LLC in January of 2012 and moved into an office on South Main Street in Bel Air, according to The Aegis profile.

The organization had community partners such as Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air and The Arena Club in Churchville. They worked with 30 to 50 adults and children with special needs over two-week periods, teaching them life skills, helping students with homework, providing in-home care or taking clients on outings, according to the profile.

P&J's held its first summer camp at The Arena Club in June 2013.

Williams said in court Thursday, when Henninger cross-examined him, that he and Givens met Yelen through The Arena Club and that Yelen liked the services they provided to the community. He offered to help them in areas such as technology and finance.

Yelen also volunteered as a mentor and provided transportation to some of P&J's "high-functioning" clients, Williams testified.

Williams acknowledged that Yelen was not paid a salary, as Yelen told him he had enough income from other business ventures. He was compensated with food that was available during company functions or meals they picked up while working late, and the company paid for Yelen's gas.

Henninger offered into evidence a 2014 tax return that indicated the for-profit P&J's had a gross income of $188,000 that year.

"Making money is part of what you do, and Mr. Yelen is making no money," Henninger said.

Williams said there had been discussions with Yelen about making him a company owner.

Henninger also questioned Williams about purchases he had made with the company debit card, purchases that were not business-related, such as a shopping excursion to a nail salon and Nordstrom in Towson and a vacation to Panama City, Fla.

Williams noted Yelen and his wife had been present on those trips, and that Yelen treated the company founders "like family."

Henninger also presented an M&T Bank form, signed by Williams, Givens and Yelen, authorizing Yelen's use of a company debit card, and he noted the form did not include any restrictions on its use.

Williams testified that the card had to be used for business expenses, though, noting if a charge came up "that was irrelevant to anything, it would have been discussed" with Yelen.

Givens and Williams reported the thefts to the Harford County Sheriff's Office, but they conducted much of the investigation themselves, with support from the Sheriff's Office, according to Meehan.

Yelen was not arrested when he was charged, but was served with a criminal summons. He is not in jail.

"He is out on his own recognizance, pending sentencing," Meehan said.

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