'Grinch' accused of stealing $28,000 in toys, gift cards from charity

A woman who claims to be a teen counselor has been charged with stealing some $28,000 worth of toys and gift cards meant for needy children during Christmas from a popular charity run by firefighters.

Las Vegas police arrested Vera Lopez, 41, Monday following a two-week undercover operation in which detectives say they observed her using donated $10 Walmart gift cards that she unlawfully obtained from the Southern Nevada Burn Foundation to buy items for herself.

The district attorney's office later filed a 10-count felony complaint against Lopez, charging her with theft, burglary and obtaining money under false pretenses.

On Thursday, Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Bill Jansen set bail at $36,000 for Lopez. She was in the Clark County Detention Center. Jansen ordered a Jan. 6 preliminary hearing on whether to bind her over for trial.

"This is about as close to being a Grinch as you can be," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Staudaher, who is prosecuting Lopez. "These are toys and gift cards that were supposed to go to underprivileged kids."

The Burn Foundation has been overseeing the firefighters' annual toy collection efforts between Thanksgiving and Christmas since 2003.

Firefighters collect the gifts, which last year totaled some 20,000, outside local Walmart stores and let other local charities distribute them to impoverished children.

Warren Whitney, a Clark County fire captain and spokesman for the Burn Foundation, said the alleged scheme involving Lopez caught the group by surprise.

"We were distraught to hear that toys were used in manners that weren't intended," Whitney said.

"The foundation is committed to helping people in the community that need help. When we got wind of what was going on, we contacted police and assisted them in the fraud investigation."

Police said Lopez had been receiving toys from the foundation for the past several years under what she contended was a nonprofit organization, The House of Teens of Nevada.

Last year, however, when Lopez sought to participate in the toy drive, the foundation discovered that the IRS did not recognize the House of Teens as a tax-exempt charitable organization, a requirement for participating in the drive.

The Nevada secretary of state's office also had revoked the organization's license for not filing a list of officers, records show.

Police said Lopez supplied the foundation with phony documentation that she was partners with another charitable organization, Solid Rock Christian Church, and thus was able to obtain 2,500 toys and 150 gift cards, valued at $26,500.

The foundation received a tip in August that Lopez had sold donated toys last year for her own personal profit out of her home at $100 a bag, according to an arrest report.

Police also allege that Lopez gave her family and friends donated gift cards and bought items for herself with the cards.

Police launched an investigation in November, as Lopez requested 2,200 toys and gift cards. Police said she again provided false documentation to the foundation claiming to have ties to Solid Rock Christian Church.

Officials with the church told police the documents were forged and that Lopez did not have permission to use the group's name with the Burn Foundation, police said.

On Dec. 8, undercover detectives, with the help of the Burn Foundation, provided Lopez with bags of toys, $10 gift cards and a bicycle and kept her under surveillance, the arrest report said.

Over the next few days, the report said, detectives observed Lopez buying personal items, such as shoes, sweaters and underwear at two different Walmarts with the gift cards they believed they had given her.

Detectives provided Lopez with more bags of toys and gift cards from the foundation on Dec. 14, and again watched her buy personal items at the Walmarts.

Among the items she purchased with gift cards were groceries, a Christmas tree and a car battery, the arrest report said.

Police estimated that they had given Lopez roughly $1,500 worth of toys and gift cards during the undercover sting.

Lopez held a Christmas party on Dec. 18, but did not give out any toys, as she had promised Burn Foundation officials, to some 30 children on hand, the arrest report said.

Detectives did not observe any children leaving the party with toys, and one child at the party was seen crying because there were no toys.

"This operation points to the fact that Lopez does not have any intention to hand out toys to needy children, and she received the toys for her own personal gain," the report alleges.

During a raid at Lopez's house Monday morning, police found five bags of toys, the bicycle and several gift cards they had given her on Dec. 8.

Police also saw the Christmas tree she had purchased from Walmart on Dec. 14, and it appeared to be decorated with other items she had purchased that day, the arrest report said.

Lopez admitted that she was not a licensed teen counselor and that The House of Teens of Nevada had never received IRS approval as a nonprofit organization, the report noted.

Police said they found Lopez to be evasive and "deceitful," as they interviewed her before taking her into custody.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.