Judge orders more community service for former SAAA head

FRONT ROYAL – The former head of a non-profit agency was ordered Thursday to perform 700 hours of community service after a judge ruled that her earlier stint with an animal welfare charity had fallen short of complying with a sentence imposed for three counts of embezzlement.

The defendant, Helen Cockrell, is the former president and CEO of the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging. Warren County Circuit Court Judge Dennis L. Hupp originally sentenced Cockrell in August 2014 to three years supervised probation and three months home confinement for embezzling thousands of dollars from the SAAA.

The scandal led to Cockrell’s firing in September 2011 and a long period in which the cash-strapped agency staggered through cuts in services for its clients and pay and benefits for employees.

The terms of probation included a requirement by Hupp that Cockrell perform 1,000 hours of community service for the disabled, elderly or poor. She was to do at least 300 hours during each of the three years of probation.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden asked for Thursday’s hearing to let Hupp determine whether Cockrell’s volunteer work in 2015 with Cat’s Cradle in Harrisonburg met the requirement of serving the disabled, elderly or poor.

“We didn’t believe the community service complied with your specific instructions to her,” Madden told Hupp.

A letter included in the court records states that Cockrell completed 1,014 hours of volunteer service with Cat’s Cradle from Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2015.

“Ms. Cockrell has volunteered 800 hours directly counseling low income and senior individuals who needed help with veterinary care, food, and medication for their pets,” the letter said. “Ms. Cockrell spent another 200 volunteer hours helping low income and senior individuals with trapping, neutering and return of feral cat populations in Page and Rockingham counties.”

Under questioning by her attorney, Todd Gilbert, Cockrell testified that her work with the agency allowed older people and the poor to care for pets that otherwise may not have been affordable for them.

“It’s just doing everything we can to help them keep their companion,” Cockrell said.

The Cat’s Cradle website includes a statement that the agency’s mission “is to ensure and maintain a safe, compassionate community for cats and dogs.”

The same Web page includes sections on agency programs, scope and transparency, beliefs and principles, and history, none of which contains any mention of serving the disabled, elderly or the poor.

Madden reminded Hupp that Cockrell had led SAAA for several years and retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel before joining the agency.

“She’s very intelligent,” Madden said of Cockrell. “She’s got experience. She just didn’t comply with what you told her to do.”

Hupp told Cockrell that her work with Cat’s Cradle wasn’t enough to fulfill the terms of the probation.

“I can tell you this would not have been what I had in mind when I put that provision into place,” Hupp said, referring to the requirement that Cockrell’s service focus on the poor, disabled and elderly.

Hupp said he would give Cockrell credit for 300 hours of the 1,000 hours of community service with Cat’s Cradle in 2015, but she must perform 700 more hours of community service with another agency to meet the remainder of the requirement.

She must volunteer at least 350 hours between now and August, the anniversary of her sentencing date, and at least another 350 hours in the following year.

Madden said afterward that it is “rare” for him to bring a defendant back to court for a post-sentencing hearing to tell a judge that a community service requirement had not been met.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com