Sharlene Jones’ world fell apart when she was accused of stealing from her employer, KidsCan. A jury threw out the case in less than an hour - but the saga has raised bigger questions about the charity’s leadership and spending. David Fisher reports.
"Not guilty," said the foreman of the jury and Sharlene Jones began to cry in great, heaving sobs.
Standing in the dock at the Auckland District Court, she had stood rigid waiting for the verdict.
Did the jury believe she was a thief? Did it believe she stole money from the KidsCan charity where she had worked for almost five years?
When the answer came, her shoulders slumped and she shook, sagging in the dock.
In just 58 minutes, the jury considered seven days of evidence then dismissed the charges. It had been 17 months since she was charged and 26 months since she had resigned from KidsCan.
Outside the court, friends hugged and cheered. Mrs Jones kept crying, hugging husband Ty.
Mrs Jones - 42, mum of four, school board trustee, sports' transport service and uniform washer - openly admits to being a terrible baker. But a thief? No way, she said.
Her lawyer, Guyon Foley, told the jury Mrs Jones was victim of a "vendetta" run by KidsCan chief executive Julie Chapman - a claim the charity strongly rejects.
Mrs Chapman was unrelenting. On Twitter the next day, she wrote: "We can all move on now. Lady who took money from KidsCan has been found not guilty. Not guilty does not mean innocent. We did the right thing."
There was evidence in court of a picture taken at Julie Chapman's wedding in 2011. Smiling staff from KidsCan, the charity founded by Mrs Chapman and her then-husband Carl Sunderland in 2005 to provide meals, raincoats and shoes for children in poverty.
Sharlene Jones was among those in the wedding party picture, which was pinned to the wall at the KidsCan offices. After she left, according to former colleague Victoria Whyte, her face was scribbled out from the picture so forcefully the pen had gone through the paper. She testified she had been told Ms Chapman was the scribbler.
"I would never do that," Ms Chapman told the court. Was it correct all the people in that photograph had left, Mrs Jones' lawyer asked. Ms Chapman replied: "I think in any normal business you have people that come and go. So there's nothing special about that."
Former operations and programmes manager Clive Young, now 63, says events at the charity before he was made redundant were not normal. He says he and others at the charity had concerns about management and spending - issues which were both raised at the trial. "You're a charity," he says. "You're using donated and government money. Some of the things we saw didn't sit well and so we questioned it."
Some of the concerns were spending decisions. As an example, Mr Young points to the use of Corporate Cabs. It's not the cheapest taxi option but it was the charity's chosen mode of transport. He criticises travel bookings which saw cheaper airfares missed because of poor planning. Concerns were not only how money was spent, but what it was spent on.
There were long lunches - alcohol-filled lunches they shouldn't have been doing even if it was with a particular sponsor.
There was concern about efforts to avoid public criticism over the costs of running the charity. KidsCan had suffered such criticism for its Big Night In telethon where it was claimed 86 cents in every dollar donated went on administration. The sensitivity is such in the charity sector that Mrs Chapman said in a recent interview: "I am proud to say that for every dollar spent in the last three years, 80 cents or more has gone directly into our programmes for children."
Mr Young says during his time at KidsCan there was a "reallocation" of budgets which improved the appearance of administration spending. For example, he says his "programmes" budget partly carried the cost of $90-an-hour marketing and fundraising general manager Jan Clark. "Freight, stock - that's a programme cost but not consultants."
Concerns about Ms Clark's consultancy fees had been raised in December 2009 in an email from Mr Sunderland to Mrs Chapman, which stated: "Anything you code to a programme has to at least have something to do with the programme otherwise it's just false representation. I'm not sure we will get away with it."
KidsCan's internal budget documents raise questions about accounting for staff when compared against accounts filed with Charity Services. Accounts for July 2011 through to June 2012 show an expected spend of $918,000 on 14 staff.
In contrast, accounts filed with Charities Services list the salary cost across the calendar years in the same period for KidsCan. For 2011, it was said to employ seven full-time and two part-time staff at a cost of $352,639 and in 2012, it listed eight full-time and three part-time staff costing $613.053. The audited accounts show the total administration spend for the entire charity to be $518,000 for 2011 and $599,000 for 2012.
Don't get me wrong, says Mrs Jones - KidsCan is a great charity. She joined in 2008 as office manager in the charity's third year. Ms Chapman - then Helson - had started the charity with Sunderland after a spell in the headlines as the "whistleblower" in a charity fraud case in which the accused were acquitted.
The two women were close and shared an office for a long period. In emails seen by the Herald, they were close enough to chat about respective bust sizes in the context of swapping clothes.
Clever marketing, a good cause and hard work saw KidsCan grow from its first year revenue of $160,000 to $7 million in 2013, which includes taxpayer money. The Ministry of Social Development has contributed $2.7 million since 2009.
"I was pretty excited to be doing what I was doing," says Mrs Jones. In the earlier years, the charity was angled at cracking the celebrity market with big-noting events to attract "high roller" donors. "It was fun rather than fundraising."
Well-known faces on the celebrity circuit were also well-known to KidsCan. With the company came a "lifestyle". "I think it got to the stage where it was expected KidsCan would pay." It was nice restaurants like Soul in the Viaduct, which Kidscan acknowledges. "Would you, if you were spending your own money, pay that much?" asked Mrs Jones. "They will say that's the cost of getting the bigger donations."
Former grant co-ordinator Kate Sanderson was also concerned. She was called to testify at Mrs Jones' trial, speaking of staff unhappiness. By 2012, she told the court, "we were all talking of leaving for various reasons" with staff asking questions "about different types of spending of money".
Questions, she told the Herald, that included: "Should we be going out for champagne lunches? Should there be Friday drinks because we got a $20,000 grant?"
There were "champagne lunches" in the city with taxis from and to the charity's offices in Albany. It's a charity, she says. "Every cent that's spent needs to be accounted for."
In at least one case - in an email obtained by the Herald - staff concerns raised with a board member were rebuffed. An email from a board member to a staff member says those issues were a "management issue" to be handled by Mrs Chapman.
According to Mrs Jones, Ms Sanderson and Mr Young, there was such consternation over spending that staff began talking among each other. At this time, Mrs Chapman began raising concerns about "negativity" in the workplace.
In a memo to staff in August 2012 - the same month Ms Sanderson left - Mrs Chapman wrote: "I expect you to stamp out gossip and negativity - going forward gossiping and negativity is unacceptable at KidsCan."
In an email to three staff in October 2012, she warned "KidsCan have zero tolerance to negative behaviour" and "if it continues it could result in disciplinary action".
Mrs Jones was one of those who received the email. She says the only talk it was relevant to was spending and transparency.
At the time of receiving the email, Mrs Jones was about to leave on holiday to Fiji with her family - the first proper break in years.
She took broken and damaged food items from the warehouse she claims would have otherwise have gone to waste, showing them to the warehouse manager and another staff member before putting a $120 donation in petty cash.
Then she went on holiday.
The day Mrs Jones returned from holiday, she was offered a new job.
She resigned by phone and email, then went into work to discuss leaving arrangements. Alongside Mrs Chapman was the charity's external HR company person.
Evidence in court shows she was confronted about taking food from the warehouse. Over the course of the day, she wrote out passwords needed for her replacement, handed over keys, a laptop and a bank card.
Upset and worried about the accusation over the warehouse food, Mrs Jones went to her doctors and was signed off sick for her notice period of 10 days.
By the end of the next day, Susan Mott - who had just started and would become Mrs Chapman's PA - apparently stumbled across a double-payment of pay and leave by Mrs Jones from June that year.
She took the evidence to Mrs Chapman, who told the court later: "I actually threw up. I went to the toilet and threw up because I ... felt sick about it."
Mrs Chapman told her board of concerns about Mrs Jones. KidsCan's lawyers sent letters demanding repayment of the money while KPMG was hired to conduct a forensic audit of Mrs Jones' pay records.
Questions grew. There was also a dispute over Mrs Jones' $83,000 salary, which she said was for a four-day week and KidsCan insisted was for a full working week.
In total, KidsCan alleged she had been paid about $25,000 more than she should have been (an amount which halved by the time it got to court). In relation to $9000 of the amount, Mrs Jones agreed, and offered to repay the charity money she said had been mistakenly received.
A $30,000 KPMG investigation paid for by KidsCan found support for both KidsCan and Mrs Jones over the salary disagreement.
"We have not found any conclusive evidence which indicates the correct position." On the double-payment, KPMG found it should not have been paid but offered no view on intent.
KidsCan considered Mrs Jones owed the full amount and should also pay its costs for the inquiry.
Through lawyers, it wrote to Mrs Jones: "To avoid further action being taken KidsCan require you to repay the sum of $24,787.16 and to meet its direct costs of approximately $35,000. KidsCan are yet undecided as to whether the police should be involved."
Mrs Jones, by then, had done her own sums. She was adamant her salary was correctly paid at $83,000. She says she was also owed holiday pay and if anything, they were even.
Mrs Chapman, at the urging of her board, went to the police in January 2013 and made a complaint of theft against Mrs Jones.
About this time, Mrs Chapman confirmed in court, she also visited Mrs Jones' new employer to tell him of the allegations.
When he testified, Mrs Jones' new boss said he was also told she had stolen from the charity's warehouse - and regularly pinched milk from the lunchroom fridge.
She was very adamant that Shar was guilty.
When Mrs Chapman sought police help, she did not go to the nearest police station and report the alleged crime across the counter.
Instead, she telephoned Superintendent Sandra Manderson at Police National Headquarters in Wellington. They had met at a KidsCan event.
An email to Manderson set out details of the charity's complaint, signing off with a "smiley face" emoticon - a cheerful companion to most communications with police over the next 15 months.
Manderson, through Waitemata police district's criminal investigations manager Detective Inspector Bruce Scott, found Detective Sergeant Megan Goldie as a contact point for Mrs Chapman.
On February 4 2013, Goldie met with Ms Chapman and Glenda Hughes, a KidsCan board member and a former police officer of 18 years who is currently a member of the NZ Parole Board and chairwoman of the NZ Racing Board.
Three days later, Goldie emailed to tell Ms Chapman and Ms Hughes a complaint file had been created. A week later detective Matt Laurenson was assigned to the case.
Laurenson was kept from working on the case in March because of court obligations. In an email to his boss, he asked if it could be passed to another detective but was told "unfortunately it will still be on your desk when you get back".
Ms Chapman emailed the detective for a progress report in April, claiming "Sandy Manderson at Police HQ in Welly was asking me if things had progressed or will soon".
There was no information on the court file suggesting Ms Chapman had been in touch with Superintendent Manderson since the original contact. Manderson, who says her only role was as an initial point of contact, told the Herald she has no recollection of any contact with Mrs Chapman relating to this.
When Detective Laurenson was next assigned to a homicide, Ms Chapman did reach out to her headquarters contact, emailing Manderson an invitation to a KidsCan event, telling the senior cop "things are moving a bit slowly on the Sharlene file" and "is there anything you might be able to do to help".
In the months that followed, there were other emails to police which were copied to Manderson, noting to officers the headquarters office was "the initial person we contacted for advice on how to proceed". In August, Laurenson was promoted and the file went back into the general pool.
The officer who landed the file - and saw it through to court - was Constable Glen Thomsen. Mrs Chapman remained closely involved. In one email, on September 9, 2013, she asked: "Do we need a PI to find out where she works?" In another she told him Mrs Jones was a " "slippery character!"
On another occasion, she emailed Thomsen the make and model of Mrs Jones' car, reporting: "She was home this morning at 7am and left at about 8am so if you are on earlies you might be able to catch up with her between this time." It emerged in court that Mrs Chapman's husband checked on Mrs Jones' movements, driving down the long rural road to the cul de sac where the Jones family lives.
Making contact with Mrs Jones turned out to be not that difficult. Constable Thomsen left his business card at her home, received a phone call from Ty Jones, her husband, then agreed on an interview which was then cancelled on legal advice.
On October 15, 2013, Mrs Jones was summonsed to attend the North Shore District Court to face two charges of theft. No interviews had been done with complainants or witnesses. In a statement to the Herald, police say the KPMG review - which reached no conclusion - was enough to lay charges.
Constable Thomsen had taken no notes at all throughout the entire 17 months of the investigation, even though police officers almost religiously mark progress on inquiries through their notebooks. There were just four police jobsheets - the first created the day the case arrived at court, March 23, 2015. Job sheets give investigations structure, outlining steps taken and evidence acquired. Criminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier, a former high-ranking police officer, says the lack of notebook entries and jobsheets is "very unusual".
The case that emerged in court was essentially the KPMG report of two years earlier. If proved, Sharlene Jones faced up to seven years in jail.
In an email to Thomsen, Mrs Chapman wrote that KidsCan wanted the case to go to trial, asking, "Is your position on this the same as ours?"
He replied: "That is my understanding and that of the Crown, we won't settle for anything less than a conviction." He signed off with a smiley face.
On the few occasions Mrs Jones has been pulled up by police, she admits the shock of it has her shaking by the time the officer arrives at her driver's door. It's simply a side of life she never encounters. When she discovered the police had been to her home, she was "petrified".
"Gosh, if the police are involved, you think it's something serious."
When the summons came to appear at the North Shore District Court, it was her first time in a courthouse. "I wasn't supposed to be there," she says. The long wait for the case to come to trial was filled with dread at the awful unknown. "It's like a cancer. It eats away at you." From the time the accusations were made to the trial, Mrs Jones shed 20kg.
"Your self-esteem goes down," says Mrs Jones a month after the case ended. "I didn't want anything to do with money."
When charged, she told the school board and her new employer, who had been visited by Mrs Chapman. When the Herald last year ran a story about the charges, she told the school board she would stand down. Chairman Martin Bradshaw rejected the offer, telling the Herald the school trustees never had a moment of doubt in Mrs Jones.
It affected our whole lives. It's like a grieving process. I've had the anger, upset, the 'why is this happening to me'? I started to really question whether I had done something or misread something.
It was a bewildered Mrs Jones who found herself, in March this year, waiting in the cells of the Auckland District Court to be called to trial. A slab for a bed, metal toilets with a low wall for modesty so guards outside can see in, graffiti reading "kill the snitches" and "Mongrel Mob". "I was going through the process of a criminal," she says.
The trial was awful and liberating at the same time. Mrs Jones shook throughout the time Mrs Chapman was giving evidence.
At the same time, she knew it was the end. "I wanted to go through that whole process at the end of it so I could have that 'not guilty'. I didn't want it thrown out."
Then it was over. Mr Jones was furious. "I said to Thomsen in the end, 'You've had a whole lot of pressure put on you to make this go through or you're a muppet'." It's a claim police deny, saying the prosecution was reviewed by a detective inspector and found to be appropriately handled.
"How can they be charging when there is nothing there except a forensic audit which is inconclusive. Where was the investigation? Where was the evidence?"
It has given Mr Jones a new, cynical appreciation of the justice system. "You're hooked into this process you can't get out of. This here was a situation where our option was plead guilty or fight it."
He said the couple were lucky their affluence relative to many others appearing in court meant they had the choice.
"You don't have an option other than plead guilty if you can't afford it. This cost us $120,000. It's going to take a long time to pay that off.
"The problem with the whole process is how do we get our money back?"
The day after, Mrs Chapman sent her tweet. "Not guilty does not mean innocent."
Mrs Jones, free at last, asks: "Can't you just let it go?"