While the Port Jefferson food pantry she supposedly ran for ten years fell into disarray, a Stony Brook woman allegedly raked in all the profits from selling fake Tiffany jewelry made in China under the guise of raising money to feed the poor.
Mary Ann Bell, 69, of Stony Brook, was arrested by Suffolk County police on Dec. 1 at as she was plying her goods, telling customers that the Tiffany jewelry items were “factory seconds at affordable prices,” according to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. He said that Bell even went as far as telling clients that they could take a tax deduction for buying her merchandise.
The money was supposed to be used to fill the shelves in the Greater Port Jefferson Food Pantry, a charity she took over more than a decade ago and apparently ran legitimately until about three years ago when she concocted the scheme.
Police say that when they opened the pantry it had only old food and rusty canned goods stored in it.
Spota said Bell admitted to keeping most of the $150,000 per year she made on the scam for herself to pay for personal expenses like her home mortgage and at least one Florida trip to Disney. However, he said Bell is not cooperating with the investigation at this point in time.
“She was using the charity to launder money,” Spota said at a press conference on Wednesday morning. “A very convenient way to dupe people.”
Bell purchased the knock-offs on the Internet from a manufacturer in China. To help avoid detection she had the jewelry shipped to her home and the bogus packaging was sent to a different location, which, according to police, is still under investigation.
The district attorney’s office said that they could not reveal the website address that Bell used because the investigation is ongoing.
When customers started bringing the jewelry into a Tiffany’s store in Manhattan complaining about flaws, the jeweler told them the items were fake. In September the company brought the matter to the District Attorney’s office, starting the investigation.
When she was arrested, Bell had $3,000 in cash on her and an additional $4,000 in checks. Tiffany estimated that the cache of merchandise police seized from her home and her car would have been worth about $600,000 if it was authentic.
“Tiffany says this is a very significant operation in so far as they have seen,” said Spota.
The cost of the jewelry was about $5 per item, which she sold for $40 each on average. To further fool her customers Bell had a phony stamp on the jewelry that claimed it was 92.5 percent silver.
“In fact the jewelry is 1.5 to 4 percent silver,” Spota explained.
The pantry that Bell was supposed to be filling with food for the poor is located in a detached garage on the property of Wisdom House, one of a network of locations around Port Jefferson that are a part of , a community outreach organization run by the Rev. Frank Pizzarelli.
Pizzarelli said that Bell came to him almost 10 years ago looking to relocate the food pantry to the unused garage on the property. He let her use the garage rent-free and Bell even renovated it. Bell had been running the food pantry since before she came to him and she was recommended by “a number of credible people in the community.”
“She came with a good reputation,” he said. “She was a woman of good faith.”
At first the pantry was “thriving,” according to Pizzarelli but even as it was down to opening only one day a week he never thought there was anything amiss.
“All I know is that there were allegations,” he said. “That’s why the pantry is closed because it was in violation of our agreement.”
Pizaarelli says he now directs people to surrounding parishes that have food pantries.
Bell was charged with trademark counterfeiting in the second degree. She will be arraigned on Feb. 1 in Central Islip. The district attorney said that Bell has no previous arrests and if convicted she could serve up to four years in prison.