BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio - The practice of tossing coins into fountains and making a wish dates back to antiquity. On Oct. 7, Deidre Romine's wish was pretty basic. She wanted food. But as she passed by the Logan County Courthouse in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Romine didn't toss any coins into the fountain. Anguished by hunger, the 38-year-old mentally disabled woman began scavenging for coins from the public fountain that is the city's namesake.
What happened next has drawn the ire of many in the small town. The police officer who arrived on the scene charged Romine with theft, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. The officer confiscated a wet $2.87 worth of pennies as evidence of the alleged theft.
"I just wanted to feed myself and my cats," said Romine. "I'll never do it again. I just want to keep my record clean." When asked about her disabilities, Romine stated, "I was born with defects, mental handicaps," she said. "There are things I just can't understand. Otherwise I am normal."
Local lawyers disagreed as to whether the coins were legally abandoned property, which cannot be stolen, or whether the coins belong to the city. The police report listed Bellefontaine Mayor Adam Brannon as the victim.
City prosecutor Joseph Bader declined to drop the charges. In Ohio, city prosecutors are not elected, but are appointed by an elected city law director. Howard Traul is Bellefontaine's city law director.
After the local press, Connect To Home, picked up on the story, Romine received an outpouring of support from the community. According to Brian Evans, the reporter who broke the story, dozens of people contacted him asking how they could help Deidre. In response, Evans and Connect To Home owner Will Zell, organized a fundraiser at the very fountain where Deidre was charged. Town residents stopped by to toss donations into a glass jar for Romine's benefit. They also set up an online fundraiser, "Donations for Deirdre Romine," where people can make contributions. So far, more than $8,000 has been raised for Romine's benefit, more than enough to pay her fine if Romine is eventually convicted.
In a telephone interview, Zell said that he is working with social services and others to guarantee the money is "handled responsibly" and there for Romine's long term benefit. Zell has been "incredibly overwhelmed" by the community's response. "My faith in humanity has skyrocketed," he said. Residents have come forward offering for Romine furniture, a place to live and even a job at a local business. Zell said Romine will have to make her own decisions, but it is important that she knows there are people around and here to support her.
At her first appearance in the Bellefontaine Municipal Court, Romine pled not guilty to the charge of theft. After reading the police report, Judge Ann Beck tentatively set a trial date for the case for November 25 at 1 p.m. and released Romine on her own recognizance.
Bellefontaine Service-Safety Director Jim Holycross said he hopes the case doesn't have to go trial and that an agreement will be reached before that date. Holycross said the town is not looking for, nor hoping for any big penalty. He said once a summons is issued it has to make its way through the legal system. "Whether it was right or not to issue a summons has been a subject of debate," Holycross said in a phone interview, "but the officer made his best determination at the time." He said the officer was responding to a "citizen's complaint" about Romine wading into the fountain.
A People's World reporter, who drove Romine to the court appearance, spoke with her afterwards. "I felt harassed...I didn't know it was wrong... I am really afraid of going to jail. I've never been to jail." Romine, who says she has never done drugs, and only drinks "one beer on New Years Eve," has never seen time behind bars. She is awaiting the appointment of counsel on the basis of her indigence.
"A positive outcome of this would be if she can get the support and services needed so she can live a good life," Holycross said.
But as state and federal budget cuts trickle down to the local level, towns like Bellefontaine increasingly face pressures to cut behavioral and mental health services. A 2011 national report showed states slashed $1.6 billion in vital services for children and adults suffering with serious mental and behavioral health issues between 2009 and 2011. Ohio reduced its mental-health budget by $26 million during the period, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Many counties and towns have been forced to pick up the slack by increasing levies or taxes.
Photo: Deirdre Romine shows local reporter her empty refrigerator. Romine was charged with theft after she was found with $2.87 in wet pennies in her pocket, scavenged to buy some food. (via Connect To Home)