Pikel charged in theft scheme
May 09, 2013 11:00 AM

A Home business owner has been charged by a U.S. Attorney with conspiring to launder money stolen from a Rayne Township natural gas drilling company.

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh Tuesday filed a bill of information against Daniel Pikel, 57, owner of Pikel’s Universal Auto Repair, in Home.

A spokeswoman in the U.S. Attorney’s office said Pikel was not indicted, but rather the filing of a bill of information generally indicates that the government and a defendant have reached an agreement and a defendant plans to waive indictment and plead guilty to charges.

The U.S. Attorney charged that between June 2009 and January 2012, Pikel conspired with Larry Winckler, 52, of White Township, then the chief operating officer of Falcon Drilling, to launder money stolen from the drilling company.

According to the bill of information, Pikel’s business provided automotive repair services to Falcon Drilling. The conspiracy developed, the U.S. Attorney charged, when Winckler prepared forged checks drawn against Falcon’s petty cash or operating accounts, signed the checks and issued them to “Universal Auto Service” or “Universal Bit Service.”

Also according to the U.S. Attorney, as part of the conspiracy Pikel then falsified invoices representing that his company provided drill bits in exchange for the Falcon checks. Pikel fronted cash to Winckler, then deposited the forged checks from Winckler into a bank account, and a few days later withdrew in cash the previously deposited check proceeds.

The U.S. Attorney said 28 such forged checks, ranging from $20,000 to $32,000 and totaling $762,000, were drawn against Falcon accounts and were deposited and later withdrawn by Pikel.

The charges don’t say whether Pikel kept any money for himself as part of the alleged scheme.

A telephone message left for Pikel Wednesday seeking his comment on the allegations was not returned. Neither did his defense attorneys immediately return requests for comment.

U.S. Postal Service inspectors, IRS criminal investigators and state police in February 2012 searched two businesses and a residence in Home owned by Pikel but declined at the time to comment on the searches. Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty, however, said the searches were related to the investigation of the embezzlement scheme against Falcon Drilling.

The conspiracy case came to light in 2012 when Cheryl Brooks, 43, of Clymer, Falcon’s former controller, admitted to Dougherty that she and Winkler stole millions of dollars from Falcon starting in 2005.

State police originally filed 58 criminal charges against Winckler, accusing him of stealing $995,000 from Falcon, but those charges were dropped when federal prosecutors took over the case against Winckler.

Brooks in January pleaded guilty in federal court to seven charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, mail fraud and tax fraud.

In connection with her guilty pleas, the court was advised that between 2007 and 2012, Brooks conspired with another person to embezzle funds from Falcon Drilling, causing a loss to the company of nearly $10 million. The government stated to the court that Brooks and another person perpetrated the embezzlement by using forged checks, fake invoices to fictitious or real vendors, and false statements to auditors.

Brooks obtained approximately $557,000 from the embezzlement scheme.

She is scheduled for sentencing May 31 and faces a possible sentence of 74 years in prison, a fine of $1.3 million, or both.

Brooks’ attorney, Patrick Nightingale, has said she is “full of remorse and grief” and is cooperating with investigators and working to repay the money by selling real and personal property she owned before the thefts — that is, not property she bought with the stolen money. The attorney said she is also surrendering a vested pension.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Melucci said at Brooks’ guilty plea hearing in January that authorities plan to indict Winckler in connection with the stolen money. Winckler has not been indicted and his defense attorney, Martin Dietz, did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.

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