CROWN POINT — After listening to wrenching victim impact statements and legal arguments from attorneys during Friday’s sentencing hearing for John Kmetz, Lake County Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez ordered the 80-year-old to repay more than $12,000 to Hunky Hollow Athletic Club and to serve four years on probation, rather than go to prison.

Vasquez ruled Kmetz didn’t need to pay any restitution to the Center for Possibilities because the center received a $60,000 insurance payment based on a policy covering theft by employees.

The Merrillville resident, who served as treasurer for both organizations, pleaded guilty in March to stealing funds from Hunky Hollow and Cerebral Palsy of Northwest Indiana, a nonprofit that has operated the Hobart-based Center for Possibilities since the 1960s. The center provides day care, therapy and educational programs for children and adults with disabilities including cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

“I don’t think it’s fair that John took that money. We had to pay more for tuition,” said Heer Patel, 22, of Portage, during her victim impact statement in the second day of Kmetz’s sentencing hearing. She attends various programs at the Center for Possibilities and said the tuition went from $5 a day to $10 a day.

Patel, who has cerebral palsy, told Vasquez that without the Center for Possibilities, “I would be at home and I wouldn’t have a program. … We’re down to three days a week because of the money he stole. I think he should pay us back for the money he stole.”

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Rooda also called Cary Brooks, vice president of Hunky Hollow and board president of the center, to give a victim impact statement.

His voice breaking, Brooks said, “These are special people. They are kept busy all the time by our loving staff. They do crafts, play outdoors, go on field trips. … Most importantly, they have friendships.”

Many of the center’s staff members are the parents of children with special needs, Brooks said, and staff hasn’t had a raise in 10 years.

“John stole from the most vulnerable part of our society,” Brooks said, adding that now many charitable organizations are hesitant to provide grant money for the Center for Possibilities.

Defense attorney Scott King called Kmetz “a good man doing a bad thing,” and stressed that “what he did was wrong viewed against a long backdrop of being a law-abiding citizen, serving his country (as a member of the U.S. Army in the 1960s).”

King also asked Vasquez to consider Kmetz’s serious health issues, including treatment for lung cancer and cardiac problems.

Rooda countered that Kmetz’s “nefarious behavior of stealing from individuals and organizations he had pledged to help” constituted “a pattern of bad behavior over years and years. … Mr. Kmetz deserves to be in jail.”

He also asked Vasquez to order Kmetz to repay Hunky Hollow Athletic Club $12,693.31 and to pay $42,105.34 in restitution to the Center for Possibilities.

In his statement to the court, Kmetz said, “My problem was I never kept receipts. … I intermingled funds with my own funds.”

Vasquez pondered the sentence, telling Kmetz that his actions were “horrible” and “pathetic.”

“It’s most important to pay the money back,” Vasquez said, adding he wasn’t sentencing Kmetz to prison. “I give you one year from today. If you fail to make significant payment your probation will end. The worst case scenario is you would go to prison for four years.”

After court, Brooks said, “It’s a letdown. It’s nothing more than a slap on the wrist.”

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