BY ART BUKOWSKI
SUTTONS BAY — Dollars, prayers and well wishes poured in for Leelanau County resident Jeff Peplinski once word spread of his battle with a rare form of cancer.
A Northport man who turned some of the community's financial support into a quick payday now faces a felony charge. Benny Lopez Jr., 23, is charged with a single count of larceny in a building for stealing a donation jar from a local store.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison.
Peplinski, 33, of Suttons Bay, was diagnosed in October with a particularly rare and often lethal form of brain cancer. Lopez went into Deep's Corner Store in Northport on Jan. 8 and walked off with a jar put there for people to donate money for Peplinski, Chief Assistant Leelanau County Prosecutor Doug Donaldson said.
Lopez stuffed the jar in his pants and walked out, Donaldson said, and shop workers later noticed the jar was missing. They checked video surveillance footage and saw a familiar face.
"They recognized their regular customer, who made no attempts to conceal his identity and was apparently unaware he was on candid camera," Donaldson said.
By the time police caught up with Lopez, the money in the jar was gone. He told officers it contained $37. The jar had been in the store for more than a month, and Donaldson takes Lopez' claim with a grain of salt.
"It could have had $370 for all we know," he said.
Rumors swirled that Lopez wouldn't be prosecuted because he acts or has acted as a police informant. Donaldson wouldn't discuss those rumors, though he said police informants don't get a blank check to do whatever they want.
"We never grant immunity for crimes to be committed in the future," he said.
Store owner Angela Dhami was glad to hear Lopez was charged. She was disgusted by Lopez' alleged crime.
"Here somebody is dying and you're stealing money from them?" she said. "There's no excuse for that."
Peplinski's mother, Rhoda Johnson, said Peplinski is now at the Burzynski Clinic, a Texas cancer treatment center. She was saddened by Lopez' theft.
"It's not like I want to see someone punished, but he just shouldn't have done it. It's disappointing," she said. "Obviously, it would have been better if he didn't do it."
Peplinski isn't doing very well, Johnson said. But the community support means a great deal to him.
"He feels all of the encouragement, all of the notes that people put on Facebook all the time," she said. "That makes a huge difference."
More 500 people showed up at a November fundraiser at the VFW Hall in Lake Leelanau. The Suttons Bay vs. Glen Lake Basketball game on Feb. 1 also will be a fundraiser for Peplinski. A 50/50 drawing and T-shirt sale is planned, along with a raffle.
A Praying for Jeff Peplinski Facebook page is up and running, and a Jeff Peplinski Benefit Fund is set up at Traverse City State Bank for anyone interested in donating.