O’Neil sentenced to 30 days jail, probation, in EBSA theft case

By Sarah Nigbor
Posted 3/23/23

The former president of the Ellsworth Baseball Softball Association will serve jail time and community service after embezzling over $100,000 from the youth sports organization over the course of …

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O’Neil sentenced to 30 days jail, probation, in EBSA theft case


The former president of the Ellsworth Baseball Softball Association will serve jail time and community service after embezzling over $100,000 from the youth sports organization over the course of several years.  

In front of a packed court room Thursday, March 23, Pierce County Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Rohl sentenced Whitney O’Neil to 30 days in jail (no electronic home monitoring or huber) and three years of probation. She also ordered O’Neil to undergo a victim empathy panel, to pay $518 in court costs, to write a new letter of apology to the EBSA and to serve 250 hours of community service by March 23, 2025 (125 hours per year, in Ellsworth or Pierce County) or face an additional 30 days in jail each year.

On Sept. 2, 2022, O’Neil pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft – business setting > $5,000 to $10,000. As part of a plea deal reached between O’Neil’s attorney, Aaron Nelson, and the Pierce County District Attorney’s office, four felony theft – business setting charges were dismissed but read-in for sentencing and restitution.

The charges were filed against O’Neil Oct. 5, 2021 after a months-long investigation by Pierce County investigators and EBSA board members that revealed O’Neil, 46, was spending EBSA funds on personal expenses such as shopping, hotels, air fares, family vacations, parking fees and personal bills. The total listed in the Oct. 5 criminal complaint was $111,714.82, taken from EBSA bank accounts. At the time, O’Neil told investigators she was “struggling to make ends meet.” On average, she spent about $20,000 per year from the EBSA accounts.

EBSA is a non-profit organization that operates the summer baseball and softball events and travelling leagues for kids 8-15 in the Ellsworth Community School District, until high school baseball and softball begin.

O’Neil, who became the EBSA treasurer in 2015 and president in 2017, said in an email to EBSA board members in 2021 that she wanted to pay the money back.

“I wanted to make the best I could for my family during a time where we couldn’t provide the best,” she wrote. “The greed took over and I couldn’t stop, and that was at the cost of the organization.”

Although Nelson argued for no jail time, Rohl said she found the fact that O’Neil only stopped stealing because she was caught “troubling.” She also noted that the court room is never packed unless it’s jury selection day.

“The entire community is watching, in particular, children in the community are watching,” Rohl said. “What I think I find troublesome, throughout the course of the time that Ms. O’Neil was president of the EBSA, she had a front row seat of the devastation it was causing to the program. She had the chance to evaluate and change her behavior but chose not to.”

Rohl also noted that there’s no telling how many children could not participate in the program due to O’Neil’s actions. Fees increased, but had the EBSA had the stolen money, it could have offered scholarships to those who couldn’t afford fees. Also, O’Neil threatened and intimidated people into not asking questions about the group’s finances.

“When this was going on, there were a number of opportunities to stop the behavior, but also multiple attempts at covering up the behavior,” Rohl said. “She has taken responsibility by pleading guilty to the charge, but only did so after she was caught. There were a significant number of years where she tried to avoid detection …

“I also have some concerns frankly about the letter that was submitted and read today by Ms. O’Neil.”

Rohl said the letter’s primary focus was apologizing for the impact it had on her and her family, not on the community, children or EBSA.

“I find that incredibly troubling,” Rohl said. “The victim of this is technically the EBSA, but a number of people who didn’t even know they were victims. Children, volunteers who spent their own money and their own time. It’s not going to be possible to pay back all of those people who have lost money, who have lost time, over all of those years. The fact that Ms. O’Neil was able to watch all of this going on for as long as she did, and still didn’t take action to correct it, I find it troubling.”

Rohl observed that the stolen money didn’t fund a drug, gambling or alcohol addiction.

“I don’t know of any programs that treat greed. I frankly, I don’t know exactly what the answer is,” she said.

She gave credit to O’Neil for paying $95,000 in restitution prior to the hearing (and $12,000 before that for a total of $107,000), but said she still struggled with sentencing. The primary factors which a court must consider in sentencing include gravity of the offense, character of the defendant and the need to protect the public. A victim impact statement stuck out to her that said “We all want to give our kids the best, but we don’t steal from others to do it.”

“That’s why I’m struggling with sentencing in this case,” Rohl said. “She took advantage of her position, her status, her opportunity. She provided a lifestyle for her children that many families in the program couldn’t afford.”

While Rohl doesn’t believe O’Neil is a threat to the physical safety of the community, the felony conviction will offer notice to potential employers of her history. O’Neil lost her job at Wells Fargo and currently works as a waitress at the Phoenix in Baldwin.


Impact statements

EBSA President Lisa Acker spoke on behalf of the organization. Acker became president in May 2021 after O’Neil resigned. She said O’Neil’s actions hurt many young athletes by depriving them of equipment and opportunities, shattered the community’s trust in the organization, caused good people to leave EBSA and deterred volunteers from participating.

“Ms. O’Neil not only stole from the community, but she used her position as president to commonly intimidate and belittle others, especially the board members and coaches,” Acker said.

O’Neil opened and closed multiple bank accounts in an attempt to cover the thefts and kept control over accounts so elected treasurers couldn’t see her withdrawals and checks written, Acker said. She also left EBSA bills unpaid, lied about funds available for equipment and allowed the insurance on Brown’s Field Complex to lapse while pocketing the premium money.

“In a small town it is difficult to believe that someone who many of us have known since childhood would lie to our faces,” Acker said. “But things went further than that. When the EBSA board began to investigate the finances, not only did Ms. O’Neil lie to us, but she dragged people’s names and businesses through the mud in a poor attempt to save her own skin. At one point, Ms. O’Neil made it appear as though local businesses were involved and tried to lay blame at their doors. At another point, she sent threatening letters to board members and attacked their character and put members’ integrity in question because we began looking into her actions.”

Board members had to spend hundreds of hours researching and investigating EBSA finances, past emails and meeting minutes. They had to take time away from their families to meet with police and soothe upset community members, all while trying to reestablish EBSA and run the program.

Lack of funds and years of neglect led to the deterioration of the Brown’s Field Complex, Acker said. The batting cage collapsed, the electrical system was failing, the lights aren’t functional, the backstop, netting, fields and fences need repair, the dugouts caved in and storm damage was not covered by insurance. Coaches and vendors were not paid on time and had to self-fund teams.

“Unfortunately, for the remainder of the Ellsworth youth and even the high school baseball/softball programs, whether you’re 8 or 18 years old, when the team walks into another community for the rest of their youth baseball/softball career, the Ellsworth ‘E’ will carry prying and criticism,” Acker said. “And it will do so until our community makes a statement and does what’s right for the youth that we are expected to protect.”

The statement ended by the EBSA asking Rohl to order jail time.

Former board member Karine Coulson spoke next and said when she joined the board in 2021, it was eye-opening.

“Seeing how much was in each account was telling that the money was going elsewhere and not to the teams,” she said.

She detailed how O’Neil sent her emails threatening her mother’s daycare, which O’Neil’s children attended, if Coulson continued looking into EBSA accounts.

“This isn’t a one-time mix-up with a debit card,” Coulson said. “The children who she stole from are no longer in this program. They already had to play with neglected equipment. How do we make it right to those families and those children who are out of this program?”

Parent Troy Hove, a former coach and board member, said he wanted to make sure the children and volunteers had a voice.

“When I coached, I bought my own baseballs, my own batting nets, my own tees,” Hove said.

He spoke of how it hurt when visiting teams would take photos of Ellsworth’s deteriorating dugouts and post them on social media.

“There’s more than just what’s been talked about,” Hove said. “This truly was impacting all the community.”

Jennifer Knutson, who is retired from law enforcement, said a jail sentence is an important part of deterring O’Neil or others from committing this type of crime again.

“As a mother of four children, I make them take accountability for their actions,” Knutson said. “We want accountability and an apology that actually is an apology to the community … A slap on the wrist is not going to deter people from committing future crimes.”

Rory O’Sullivan, attorney for the EBSA, said his clients don’t feel O’Neil is truly remorseful.

“One of the biggest concerns that the members of the EBSA have is that Whitney O’Neil is crying crocodile tears and not truly remorseful,” he said. “This community needs to see that Ms. O’Neil spends some time in jail, without work release. It is a slap in the face to the community if she doesn’t spend some time incarcerated. Frankly, I think she should be taken into custody today.”

Assistant District Attorney Joe Schieffer and Nelson had presented a joint recommendation to Rohl that O’Neil serve probation and community service, but no jail time.

“Image is very important to Ms. O’Neil and in an attempt to maintain an appearance of a higher social class, she did this,” Schieffer said. “The façade has been crumbled. One can hide in a closed jail but one cannot hide in public service. Such an experience may force her to rub elbows with people and answer to those who have trouble making ends meet.”

Nelson argued that probation should be used unless confinement is needed to protect the community from the offender, if they need treatment only provided in incarceration, etc. 

“Prior to this she was an employed, respected member of the community,” Nelson said. “I think that everyone knows that Ms. O’Neil is at a low risk to recidivate in the future.”

O’Neil has up to 20 days to appeal the sentencing. She must report to Pierce County Jail within 30 days.

Ellsworth Baseball Softball Association, Whitney O'Neil, business theft, sentencing, Pierce County Circuit Court, Ellsworth, Wisconsin