A three-week long investigation by the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office and Federal partners including the US Secret Service resulted in the arrest of Susana Maria Arneson and Douglas Paul O’Berry for allegedly embezzling $1.5 million dollars from the Humane Society of the Nature Coast (HSNC).
Operation Heartless was the name of the three-week operation, which began when members of the Board of Directors for the Humane Society noticed discrepancies in their accounting records. Ironically, “Heartless” is the word Arneson used to describe the individual who burglarized the Humane Society in 2020, leaving little in supplies to care for the animals.
That individual who was convicted of burglarizing the facility is currently serving an 8.5-year sentence.
Beginning on January 20, 2022, law enforcement officials combed through thousands of documents and issued dozens of court orders, according to Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis. He credited his Major Crimes and Economic Crimes units working with the external task forces and secret service for this successful effort.
Arneson was hired by the Humane Society in May 2019. During a press conference held on February 10, 2022, Arneson was shown in photos with then-boyfriend O’Berry that same year. Current photos of the couple, now married as of August 2021, show stunning physical transformations of both. Neinhuis did not comment on if the funneled money was used for these makeovers, but added, “We’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but we’re relatively confident that the change in her appearance is not the result of hard work and willpower.”
Officials also uncovered evidence of international travel.
Nienhuis said that officials discovered that when Arneson gave a television interview following the burglary in 2020, she had already taken more than $300,000 from the shelter.
Though O’Berry was associated with the activity, Arneson seems to have been the “mastermind,” behind the operation, as she worked directly with the shelter and had primary access to the funds.
Some of the purchases made by the couple included a $20,000 boat, a $43,000 2020 Jeep Wrangler, and another boat at an undisclosed price. The Jeep and vessels were not financed. Five days after the shelter was burglarized, Arneson purchased a home for $220,000. In July of 2020, she transferred ownership of the home to O’Berry for $10.00. The home was paid for without a mortgage.
Bottoms Up Charter, a company started by O’Berry in February 2020 may have been launched with the stolen funds. In March 2021, two vehicles were purchased and registered in the business name. Nienhuis reported that O’Berry also purchased Precision Tackle.
Soon after their marriage, Arneson resigned from the Humane Society, and started a business called Vibes by SQ next door to one of the tackle shops.
Nienhuis did not go into detail about the methods used to divert funds from the shelter to the couple, but said, “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” explaining that there are many levels and connections to be drawn when solving economic crime cases.
Law enforcement officials learned during the investigation, that during the last few months, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filed liens against Arneson for the 2012 and 2013 tax years for the amount of approximately $400,000. “Which means that in those two years, she made a tremendous amount of money. Whether that money was legal or illegal, we’re still trying to figure out.
Bill Gladson, State Attorney for the Fifth Judicial Circuit said that each are being held on $750,000 bonds, and facing first degree felony charges carrying maximum sentences of 30 years each. The anticipated charges are grand theft over $100,000, organized fraud over $50,000, and money laundering over $100,000. They are reportedly not cooperating with investigators.
Nienhuis added that some of the money has been recovered as bank accounts have been seized, however the amount of money was not disclosed.
The loss of these funds is a big setback for their planned construction of a facility to house the dogs in their care. The organization completed a new 5000 facility for their feline residents in November of 2020 with plans to build a similar facility for the dogs.
Randi Zavrel, President of the HSNC Board of Directors made the following statement regarding “Operation Heartless.”
“We have learned a lot going through this event/situation. Although HSNC employed the services of a third-party accounting firm at all times, our organization was not informed of any discrepancies. Our case shows that when you have an individual with malicious intent to do damage, one who has past experience of white collar crime, bad things happen to good people. We are moving forward, assisting the Sheriff’s department in every way and feel confident that we will secure what belongs rightfully to the Humane Society of the Nature Coast. This unfortunate experience will not happen again.”