Profiting from loss: S. Hadley man accused of stealing $5,000 from fundraiser for classmate who died

Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Despite her anger, Cathy Machak said she doesn’t want jail time for the man who allegedly embezzled thousands of dollars from a fundraiser in memory of her late son, who died last year.

Machak said a more fitting tribute for her son would be to see Brian Abair, 29, rehabilitate himself and be required to do community service to repay the debt she and her family feel he owes.

Abair, of 40 Prospect St., South Hadley, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a single count of larceny over $250. He appeared in Hampshire Superior Court wearing a dark suit with green shirt, and did not address Judge Richard Carey directly. His Northampton attorney, Jesse Adams, entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

The indictment alleges that he pocketed more than $5,000 collected in fundraising efforts for Machak’s son, Seth, who died from complications of pneumonia in February of 2013.

Adams declined to commment on the case when reached by telephone Tuesday afternoon.

In an interview in the Hampshire County Courthouse following Abair’s arraignment, Cathy Machak — wearing a blue rubber bracelet on her left wrist in memory of her son, with the words “Acts of Sethness” imprinted on it — described her son was “an old soul.”

She said he loved driving in his convertible and would keep a scarf and sunglasses in his glove box for passengers so they could ride with the top down in comfort.

He loved listening to Frank Sinatra, loved working with Alzheimer’s patients at The Watermark retirement community in Connecticut, and was passionate about being a member of the Mount Tom Masonic Lodge in Holyoke.

“He loved to please people, he loved to volunteer,” Machak said.

A close friend and high school classmate of Seth’s, Kaylee Nicholls, said, “He thought life was too short and too precious to focus on the negative.”

According to Machak, Seth became ill in February 2013 with a case of strep that soon moved into his the rest of his body and developed into pneumonia.

She said he entered a Connecticut hospital Feb. 18 and died five days later at the age of 29.

Machak said crowds filled the parking lot of the funeral home an hour before Seth’s wake. People waited up to three hours in line to pay their respects and the service went on three hours past its scheduled end to accommodate all the visitors.

While Seth was in the hospital, Machak said, Abair had created a Facebook post with a link for donations, claiming the family needed help with medical expenses.

Machak said the family had asked for no such assistance and had most of their medical expenses covered by insurance.

“We didn’t need the money,” she said.

She said she asked Abair, whom she didn’t know personally, to stop the collection efforts and take down the posting, which she said he declined to do.

“He said because people were already giving and people wanted to do something,” Machak said. “I didn’t have the energy to fight this kid.”

“Seth was in ICU, we were told he was going to die and we weren’t leaving him,” she said.

Machak and First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne said it’s not clear how much money was donated online, nor how many donors made contributions.

Machak said she saw a partial list of donors after she reported the alleged embezzlement to police and recognized one name, that of Watermark’s lawyer, who donated a total of $200.

Abair and Seth went to South Hadley High School at the same time, but Seth was one year ahead of him, Machak said.

In April, Abair allegedly spearheaded a benefit and raffle in Seth’s memory with the proceeds to go to Watermark to be used to help pay for trips and activities for the Alzheimer’s patients there, Machak said.

Nicholls said she assisted with the April benefit and was only somewhat acquainted with Abair.

The benefit was held on April 5, 2013, at the Polish American Club in South Hadley.

Nicholls and Machak said 200 tickets at $25 each were sold, raising a total of $5,000, and about $4,000 was raised through a raffle of items, including use of a Cape Cod vacation home.

Nicholls said items that were sold for the benefit included pins she designed in the shape of support ribbons made to look like bacon, a reference to Seth’s love of it.

While Seth was still in the hospital, the family also launched an “Acts of Sethness” campaign, which encouraged people to perform their own acts of kindness on Seth’s behalf.

Machak said she purchased 16 benefit tickets herself.

“I said we are going to pay, because this is for a fundraiser,” Machak said. “The money was going to Watermark.”

Machak said after the benefit Abair gave her $3,700 in two separate payments.

By July 12, 2013, the family had still not received the balance of the money raised, Machak said.

Last summer, Machak said she brought the matter to South Hadley Police, who then brought it to the Northwestern district attorney’s office, which sought a criminal complaint against Abair.

Gagne said complaints about fraudulent fundraising efforts don’t happen often, but when they do, his office takes them seriously.

Machak said she confronted Abair at his job shortly after the benefit when she suspected something wasn’t right.

Machak said she grabbed a hose Abair was using and kinked it to stop the flow of water and get his attention.

Machak said she told Abair, “My son died so you can have this money.”

Machak said she wanted to warn people about donating to causes without checking them first.

“One of the things my husband and I have been wanting to just scream to people when they give benefits is, check it out,” she said.

Machak said she feels badly that she hasn’t been able to express her gratitude to people who donated in good faith.

“I hope that after all of this is over that I find out the names of people to thank them,” she said.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Nicholls said. “I know Seth’s parents wanted to individually call everyone on that list, and they would if they had that list to thank them.”

“There are people that we don’t even know that donated and we can’t thank them, but it truly means a lot,” Nicholls said.

Abair is due back in court for a pre-trial hearing on Sept. 23.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.