Pet food company owners charged in utility scheme

March 24, 2010 5:15:17 PM PDT
A north suburban couple who run a high-end pet food company are charged with stealing nearly $2 million worth of gas and electricity.

Joel and Holly Sher of Lincolnwood are charged with felony theft and money laundering.

The Shers have received nationwide attention for their company, Evanger's Dog and Cat Food. The Rachel Ray Show recently featured them on the program for their kosher pet food products. Now, however, prosecutors say the couple jerry-rigged their Wheeling plant and swiped more than $1.5 million of gas and electricity.

"They not only attempted to evade detection detection by utility inspectors, but they had employees who are not trained in the area divert gas and electrical equipment which can be quite dangerous," said Jack Blakey, prosecutor.

"We are looking forward to the opportunity to litigate in open court and we believe after all the evidence is heard, they'll be exonerated," said Joel Sher's attorney, Laurence Levin.

The couple's attorneys made those comments after court but one of their sons declined to say anything afterwards.

At the couple's home in Lincolnwood, a housekeeper who says she has worked for the Shers 15 years broke down in tears.

"I love them a lot," said the housekeeper in Spanish.

Along with Wednesday's court proceedings, the Shers are facing other legal problems as well. In January of 2009, several employees filed a federal lawsuit against the company, alleging that they were not paid overtime. That case is still pending.

In September of 2008, Evanger's Dog and Cat Food sued a former employee, alleging that Thomas Schaade fraudulently obtained $67,000 from a payroll account. Court records show that in October of that same year, Schaade told Joel Sher that "he had a civic duty to report illegal action" that was happening at the company.

In December, 2008, a former employee, who was not identified in court notified Nicor about the Shers' company and how they were diverting gas and an investigation ensued. That employee's name is not on Wednesday's court record, known as a proffer.

"If this is the employee that is being referred to in the proffer, there may be some motivation for the person making those statements to be less than truthful," said Gregory Bedell, Holly Sher's attorney.

Wheeling officials say they have issued numerous code violations to the company that fall into three categories: public nuisance, mainly for the odor complaints, property maintenance and exterior sanitation problems like leaving raw chickens on the property or having meat juices leak from refrigerated trucks.

Other businesses in the industrial park say they have a tenuous, strained relationship with the couple even calling them bullies.

Prosecutors wanted the Shers each held on a $1 million bond. Joel Sher received a $250,000 bond. Holly Sher got a $200,000 bond.

On Wednesday evening, the Shers remained in jail.