TRAVERSE CITY — A Traverse City Area Public Schools custodian is in jail after police said they caught him on camera stealing hundreds of dollars in change from Eastern Elementary School.
Traverse City police arrested Jason David Cook, 34, of Traverse City, on Monday. He is charged with stealing about $500 from the school, including money raised by students for a campaign that provides stuffed animals to children in military families.
"It puts some closure on it to know that someone's been caught," said Heather Asiala, a member of the school's parent-teacher organization who helped organize the fundraiser.
On April 25, school officials told police that $200 was stolen from a donation jar at Eastern. Traverse City Police Capt. Brian Heffner said there was no forced entry to the school, leading investigators to suspect involvement by someone who had a building key. Police then installed a surveillance camera in an attempt to identify the thief.
Money, separate from the donated funds, was placed in a locked area to be monitored by school employees.
"We were hoping that no additional monies came up missing, but if it did, we wanted to definitively say who was taking money from the school," Heffner said.
After the initial theft, the community rallied behind the cause and donated more than $3,500 to replenish the funds.
Cindy Berck, TCAPS' human resources director, said the larger figure wasn't at risk.
"The donations that came in after the initial theft were handled in a secure and professional manner," she said.
On Sunday, Eastern staff members reported that some of the bait money was missing. The surveillance tape showed a man emptying the change from a water jug into a bucket. Eastern Principal Jana DuGuay identified the man in the video as Cook, according to court records.
After his arrest, police said Cook admitted to stealing a total of $500 on four separate occasions, including money from teachers' purses and wallets. A small amount of the money was recovered, but not all of it.
Cook is charged with larceny in a building, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison. He was arraigned Tuesday, and a preliminary exam is scheduled for June 3.
The district hired Cook as a substitute custodian in December 2010, and then in January as a second-shift custodian at Eastern Elementary. Berck said he typically worked from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. He resigned Monday following his arrest.
Berck said the district does a background check on all potential employees. Convictions for felonies or certain misdemeanors disqualify applicants.
"At the time, he had nothing on his record that would prevent us from hiring him as a custodian in the district," she said.
Cook was questioned after the initial theft, but denied any involvement.
Asiala said she was saddened to hear of a school employee's involvement, but she believes the incident provided students a valuable lesson.
"It may sound trite, but I think they learned that good can triumph over bad, and that they could persevere and move on and still make the goal they set out to do," she said. "They far surpassed what they expected with the help of an amazingly generous community."