A day after the arrest of its president, who is accused of stealing almost all of the nonprofit group's money, it is uncertain if Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks will continue or fold.
William Grooms, 42, was released Tuesday on a personal-recognizance bond from the Beaufort County Detention Center. He is charged with embezzling more than $10,000 from the organization.
Board members discovered last week its donations had vanished. They ousted Grooms and notified Bluffton police. They also removed his wife, treasurer Amanda Mitchell-Grooms, but the board and police do not suspect she was involved.
New president Charles Bumgardner said the group will meet again, on an undetermined date, to discuss its future. He declined to say whether he expects the group will continue raising money or disband.
Board member Jennifer Megliore said it would be a shame if the actions of one person derailed plans for a dog park in Buckwalter Regional Park. She and others said the group was in its final pledge drive and expected to break ground soon.
"It was just so shocking to a lot of us because he had worked so hard," Megliore said.
Grooms became president in 2011, when members voted in an almost entirely new board of directors, board member Abby Bird said. He and Mitchell-Grooms had recently moved to Bluffton from Hilton Head Island. The group, which had been attempting to build a Bluffton dog park since 2004, was stagnating and needed members with fresh fundraising ideas, Bird said.
Charlotte Wamser, who founded the group but has since moved to Myrtle Beach, said she resigned in 2012 after repeatedly asking Grooms and his wife if she could see financial statements. The couple wanted to "run the show" and ignored her suggestions, she said. Police say Grooms was the only member with signatory authority on the account for the group, which became a 501(c)3 organization in 2006.
Grooms helped secure a space for the dog park in Buckwalter Regional Park by signing an agreement with the town and Beaufort County soon after becoming president. However, neither government would fund it, insisting the friends group pay for construction and upkeep.
Town manager Anthony Barrett said there is "no reason" the town or county would not honor the group's $1-a-year lease, which continues through 2016. He said he expects the group will keep working toward its goal, despite the setback.
Mayor Lisa Sulka hoped for the same.
She wrote a letter, appeared in a video and posed for photos with her dog in support of the group's 2012 bid in the PetSafe Bark for Your Park Contest, which gives $100,000 for a dog park to a community with the most online votes. It was a finalist for the award last year and is vying for it again this year.
"I hope a philanthropist has a soft spot for them and supports them," Sulka said. "I know that the community would be very happy to have one."
Bird, who also trains dogs, says she isn't so sure. She has been with the group from its early stages and encouraged many of her customers to donate. The goal of the latest pledge drive was $20,000 by May 31. According to the group's website, it raised a little more than $10,000.
"For years, we've been pulling every dollar we can out of the community," she said. "The last fundraiser we did ... has probably been the best one yet, but we're only talking about dozens of people, when we have thousands of dog owners in this community."
According to Bluffton police Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner, less than $100 remained in the group's account. Neither she nor board members would say how they believe Grooms spent the money, citing the continuing investigation. The department will not release the investigative report until its findings are complete.
McCall-Tanner said investigators will continue to search the organization's records until they "feel comfortable that we've traced all the money that we can."
Attempts Wednesday to reach Grooms for comment were unsuccessful. According to the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office and police, he is not yet represented by an attorney.