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By Parker Kulczyk
The Courier 

Strand Appears in Court, Sentenced to 90 Days


Parker Kulczyk

The Courier

In Valley County District Court on June 20, 2016, former Fort Peck Fine Arts Council Executive Director Mary Strand was sentenced on five felony counts of theft by embezzlement and money laundering. In attendance included many members of the council, as well as four witnesses of the prosecution.

Montana Probation and Parole Officer Pam Heikens was first of four witnesses called to the stand. State of Montana Prosecutor Dylan Jensen asked if she had reviewed the plea agreement that was signed by the defendant, which she had. She also explained other suggested conditions that she thought would be helpful to the defendant. Another notable part of this witnesses time on the stand was when the defense mentioned they had two cashier’s checks on hand that day, one for the remaining restitution and one for the fines and surcharges.

The State’s second witness was Patt Etchart, former president and longest tenured board member of FPFAC. Etchart read aloud a letter on behalf of the council, which described how the council suffered at her (Strand) hand and how personal reputations of members of the council were damaged as well. Towards the end of the letter, Etchart said the council believes 30 days in jail is too lenient. After she finished reading the letter, she was questioned by the State, the defense and District Judge John C. McKeon. During questioning, it was added that accounting has now been turned over to a professional firm, and that checks over $500 must be signed by two officers. Vernon Woodward, Strand’s attorney, asked Etchart, “Has anyone told you this is all your fault?” Etchart replied that no one had personally confronted her, but the “rumor mill” in town accused her of attempting to cover up the crimes, mostly because of her close friendship with Strand.

The third witness was current FPFAC president Annette Vegge. Vegge was the one to file the affidavit, and was asked mostly about that document, along with further questions about the investigation by the FBI and CHMS.

The fourth and final witness called to testify was Valley County Sheriff Glen Meier. Along with his status as head of the department in charge of the investigation, Meier said that he and his wife are continued financial patrons as well as volunteers of the Fort Peck Theatre. Meier read a prepared statement to the court. He first thanked Strand for the improvements to the theatre. He then told the court that, along with help from the FBI, he estimated over 800 hours had been spent on this investigation. He continued, stating he believes not all of the funds stolen have been discovered. “Mary Strand is a criminal,” Meier said bluntly before elaborating, “Unlike Jesse James... she did not use a gun... she used her friendships.” He then asked the judge to give Strand a one-year sentence in the Valley County Detention Center. After his statement, Woodward asked Meier if he had pulled his support for the theatre, which Meier said he had not.

Closing statements from both parties followed. The State recommended the judge sentence Strand based on the plea agreement, except the total amount of restitution, instead using the correct amount listed in the affidavit. Strand’s attorney then explained that the case puzzled him, and that he had no logical explanation for her actions. He argued that five years of probation was sufficient and that jail time was not needed. He further his argument how five years of probation is not easy, and how being a convicted felon had already punished her. An interesting quote from Woodward was, “She is working as a nanny, that is a punishment in itself.”

Strand, when given the opportunity to make a statement to the court, She tearfully expressed regret and shame, and that she fell into a rabbit hole and couldn’t find the way out. She remarked that she will never have friendships like the ones she lost and that she can never love something as much as she loved the theatre.

After some consideration, Judge McKeon then announced his sentence. For all five felony counts, all five years of prison were suspended, while she received fines totaling $5,800. In addition, She was sentenced to 90 days in Valley County Detention Center, where she will have to report to by July 18. Strand was also ordered to pay the remaining restitution balance in the amount of $17,820.34, and was required to sign up for probation immediately after sentencing. Once reported to Valley County Detention Center, she will be required to undergo a mental health assessment within the 10 first days, and begin a cognitive and behavioral program. Upon completion, Strand will be required to submit a letter of apology to the Courier addressing the community, along with a oral apology broadcast on local radio.

Strand will have an opportunity to reduce time served, with the opportunity to work up to eight hours of community service a day. Each eight hours served reduce her sentence by one day, maximum 30 days. All of the conditions that are to be met in the sentencing are to be at Strand’s own expense.


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