Judge gives teacher probation in theft

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Stan Milam
Friday, January 4, 2013

— A Walworth County judge said Thursday he considered Johnalee Kawalec's 19-year career as a teacher of distinction when he spared her prison or jail time.

A jury found Kawalec, a single mother with two children, guilty of felony theft following a trial Nov. 1. She was convicted of stealing between $2,500 and $5,000 from an elderly in-law she cared for. The maximum penalty she faced was 18 months in prison and two years of extended supervision in addition to a $10,000 fine.

"This case calls out for probation," Judge John Race said when he sentenced Kawalec to two years probation. "She is clearly not a threat to her community and is not in need of correctional treatment."

Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo argued for jail time.

"She committed a crime," Donohoo said. "She earned his trust and then stole from him."

Donohoo asked Race to send a message regarding crimes against seniors.

"These kinds of crimes will not be tolerated," Donohoo said. "While we are not asking for prison, we believe some jail time should be imposed as a condition of probation."

Kawalec, 44, of Lake Geneva is on an unpaid leave of absence from Star Center Elementary School in Lake Geneva, where she teaches first grade. Lake Geneva Schools Superintendent Jim Gottinger said he is aware of Kawalec's criminal conviction, but said he could not comment further on Kawalec or her case.

Kawalec's teaching career, past and future, was an issue during Thursday's sentencing hearing. She professed her innocence and asked Race to consider her educational achievements.

"I hope you can see through the allegations," Kawalec said. "I did not steal. We had a joint account. We shared expenses. The allegations are false."

Kawalec pointed out that she was a leader at her school, was the recipient of a Herb Kohl teacher fellowship and was twice a finalist for Walt Disney's American Teacher award.

"For the past 19 years, I have dedicated my life to teaching," she said. "But on Feb. 2 last year, my life was shattered."

Kawalec was arrested and charged in February with felony theft greater than $10,000 from the in-law she was caring for.

The criminal complaint alleged she stole more than $50,000.

The jury found Kawalec not guilty of the theft greater than $10,000 charge. In a special verdict, the jury said the amount stolen was between $2,500 and $5,000.

Judge Race ordered restitution but did not specify how much. He noted, however, that the jury's verdict was a guideline.

Last updated: 8:06 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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