Charity Official Sought as $50,553 Disappears

Times Staff Writer

The money was supposed to go for eye-disease research.

But the $50,553 in donations to Retinitis Pigmentosa International may have gone instead into the pockets of a trusted fund-raiser--a loss that may force the 15-year-old Woodland Hills-based charity to close, its founder said Wednesday.

Los Angeles police said they want to question Daniel J. Sonners, the charity's former chief fund-raiser, who disappeared Monday after allegedly embezzling the money.

West Valley Division detectives said they are investigating whether Sonners, 39, forged checks to loot the charity's account at a Woodland Hills bank earlier this month when founder Helen Harris was away on vacation.

When Harris' son discovered the theft and tried Monday morning to lock Sonners in his Canoga Avenue office until police arrived, a struggle ensued and Sonners escaped, authorities said.

"I can't believe anybody would come in and rob blind people," said Helen Harris, 51, a retinitis pigmentosa sufferer who has only 1% vision in one eye.

"I never questioned his honesty. Maybe if I could have looked him in the eye I would have known."

Harris said Sonners was hired two months ago to plan a year-end telethon aimed at raising $1.5 million for a retinitis pigmentosa research project being conducted in North Carolina.

In the past, her group has raised about $3 million for research and counseling through such televised appeals, Harris said. Considered an incurable hereditary disease that gradually causes vision to fail, retinitis pigmentosa afflicts an estimated 400,000 Americans.

Most of the missing money was earmarked for the North Carolina research project, although part of it was to have been used to pay rent, phone charges for the charity's national toll-free line and salaries for herself and two employees, Harris said.

"We have $2,600 left. We'll be totally out of money in four weeks," Harris said.

She said references on Sonners' employment resume checked out. She said he was seemingly hard at work lining up celebrities to appear on this year's telethon when her son saw him cashing one of the charity's checks at a bank on Friday.

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