Friday, October 29, 1999

Alleged Deadbeat Mom Arraigned

Officials believe LI case is a first

BY: By Robert Kessler and Ken Moritsugu. STAFF WRITERS

A former Dix Hills woman who allegedly fled to Florida to avoid paying child support was arraigned in federal court yesterday in what prosecutors believe is one of the first interstate cases in the country.

Jo-Ann Venturella, 48, who was a special-education teacher in the Lindenhurst school district for about 20 years, had been ordered to pay $225 a week in support for her two sons and allegedly owes about $20,000 in back payments.

"It's a terrible thing to do," said her former husband, James Ferretti, 47, who still lives in Dix Hills with their sons, James Jr., 8, and Justin, 7. "This is for their college." Ferretti, a real-estate salesman, said the two were divorced in May, 1998 in a very contentious proceeding that included a 17-day trial.

Federal authorities in March issued a warrant for Venturella, who uses her maiden name, on charges of failing to pay support for children who lived in another state. They were not able to find her until Tuesday, when acquaintances told investigators she was working as a tutor in Manhasset. It was not clear yesterday when she had returned to Long Island from Florida.

Venturella faces a maximum sentence of 2 years if convicted, but likely would serve about 10 months, under federal sentencing guidelines.

Federal prosecutors said they believe that when the warrant for her arrest was issued, she was the first woman so targeted under federal law. Since then, they said at least one other woman was arrested elsewhere in the country on an interstate charge.

U.S. Magistrate Viktor Pohorelsky set bail at $20,000 at arraignment yesterday in U.S. District Court in Uniondale.

Venturella's lawyer, federal public defender Randi Chavis, declined to comment on the charges.

But in court, Chavis argued for low bail and said that Venturella had not been trying to hide, since she obtained a driver's license in Florida and took jobs under her real name.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Brown said, "The defendant is not public enemy No. 1 but has certainly been acting like public enemy No. 1." In an affidavit, special agent Richard Fulgieri of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that after the couple was divorced, the first week's support payment was taken directly from Venturella's salary at the Lindenhurst schools. He said she then applied to the school district for a leave of absence from her $80,000-a-year position and moved to Pembroke Pines, Fla.

On the witness stand yesterday, Fulgieri said he and another agent found Venturella after going Tuesday to a Syosset tutoring agency that she had listed as previous experience on a Florida job application.

At the Syosset agency, they learned that Venturella was working for a Manhasset agency on Northern Boulevard. When the agents went there, she happened to be there, and they arrested her, Fulgieri said.

Federal agents said they believe she has been staying at a home in Rockville Centre.

Copyright 1999, Newsday Inc.