A Tazewell County jury on Friday quickly acquitted an East Peoria man on charges he stole funds from a charity he helped create to help indigenous Brazilian people.
After a week-long trial, the jury deliberated about an hour before finding Dennis Sohn, 68, not guilty of theft over $10,000 and personal use of charitable funds.
Sohn acknowledged he deposited about $19,000 in cash and checks intended for Operation Amazon, which provided water filters for native villages and other items, into his personal and business bank accounts between 2011-13.
Prosecutors with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, however, failed to convince the jury that Sohn, a real estate developer and travel agency owner, used any of the funds for himself.
“No evidence of personal use was established,” the jury’s forewoman said after the trial.
The charity, moreover, lost none of the money its donors intended for it, defense attorney Joel Brown said in closing arguments.
Sohn, who ran the charity’s finances on behalf of New Life Christian Church of Morton, was simply “fronting” cash deliveries to a Brazilian missionary in contact with the villages “and paying himself back” with the donations, Brown argued.
“This case offends my sense of what American justice should be,” and is based on the premise that, “We’re going to assume you stole because you can’t prove you didn’t,” Brown told the jury.
Sohn was charged in September 2016 after the charity’s board of directors notified police of donors’ funds found in Sohn’s personal and travel agency bank accounts.
The charity had no official rules regarding management of the donations, Brown said, and Sohn as its chief fiduciary had latitude in how to handle them.
“He did not steal. He was paying himself back, and he had the authority to do so,” Brown said.