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Captain Susan McGregor was in the Dunedin District Court yesterday to see Martin Roger Finnerty (54) and Ngaire Finnerty (46) plead guilty to a joint charge of theft. The couple were convicted and sentenced to community work.
"We are really saddened that this happened," Capt McGregor said.
The Finnertys began volunteering for the Salvation Army about seven years ago.
Once a month, they used the organisation's van to collect donated food items from a wholesaler and take them to the foodbank.
Discrepancies in the van's mileage resulted in the couple's movements being put under surveillance by Salvation Army staff and police.
After making a pick-up, the pair were seen dropping off boxes at an unauthorised address, before taking the rest to the foodbank, then returning to collect the goods they had stashed and taking them home.
This process was seen repeated three times between January 1 and July 2.
Capt McGregor said the impact of the theft was immeasurable because it was not known how long it had been happening or how much food had been taken.
"It did mean our shelves were low. Who knows what we missed out on?"
Each week, about 70 food packages were given to people in need. Demand had increased 25% over the past 18 months because of the recession.
After the discovery, procedures around foodbank pick-ups were tightened and monitoring of volunteers increased.
"The biggest thing that worried me was the impact this would have on the confidence of the public in donating to us.
"I'd hate people to think we were really loose with that, because we are not," she said.
A staff member now accompanied the remaining six volunteers who shared the duty of collecting donated food from wholesalers.
In court yesterday, defence counsel Jo Turner said the Finnertys knew their behaviour was "completely unacceptable" but it was "an inappropriate response and misguided effort to gain some control" of their lives.
They had been under emotional and financial stress following the manslaughter of their 16-year-old son and stepson, Shaun Finnerty-Gallagher, in Christchurch in 2008.
In 2009, Thomas Tihema Christie (26) was sentenced to six years' jail for his manslaughter and for indecently assaulting the teenager.
Judge Stephen O'Driscoll said the theft had "significant effects and consequences for others that wanted food and that food was not available".
"This is clearly a mean theft and deprived others in Dunedin of food and grocery items which they were clearly in need of.
"You were placed in a position of trust and you abused that trust," he told the Finnertys.
The Finnertys declined to comment when approached.