NILES — A local man who has led fundraising efforts for Thomas Stadium was arrested and charged this week for allegedly stealing money connected to the baseball park.
Dakota Jackson, 24, was arraigned Wednesday on felony counts of embezzlement and falsely reporting a felony after he said $6,000 in cash was stolen from his truck in September. Police say that money belonged to the nonprofit board which runs Thomas Stadium’s baseball leagues.
Jeff Miller, treasurer of Greater Niles Baseball/Thomas Stadium board, said the board is still trying to figure out if Jackson took more than the $6,000 that was reported and said the money had been collected in team fees for the stadium’s adult baseball leagues.
In interviews Thursday, board members emphasized that the money donated by the community for renovations was not affected and is going toward improvements to the stadium. They added that funding and fees connected to youth leagues were also not touched.
“One person does big damage and the rest of us are paying for it,” said Pepper Miller, a fellow board member and Jeff Miller’s wife.
Thomas Stadium is owned by the city, but the Greater Niles Baseball board, a nonprofit organization, rents the site for $1 a year and runs leagues played at the park. The board is in charge of renovation efforts for the historic stadium, but Jackson was a vocal leader in fundraising for the project.
Youth leagues are the core of the park’s mission, the Millers said, though the board decided to start an adult league about five years ago.
As the adult league grew, the board became “overwhelmed” and put Jackson in charge of it in 2018, including giving him control over the league’s bank account.
“I’ve known him since he was 19,” Jeff Miller said. “I knew him and he was always a stand-up dude.”
In the past year, however, Jeff Miller said the board began noticing red flags which came to a head in mid-September when Jackson allegedly emptied the league’s bank account and then claimed the money was stolen when someone broke into his truck.
That’s when board members then notified police and were forced to step in and provide around $5,000 to pay league umpires for the remainder of the season.
“We should have been more diligent and we learned our lesson,” Jeff Miller said.
Jackson was arraigned Wednesday. If convicted on both counts, he could face up to nine years in prison.
Moving forward, youth leagues and renovation efforts will continue as normal, board members said.
The stadium, which used to draw teams from around the U.S., has received a number of improvements in the past year, according to Jeff Miller. Its bathrooms have been redone, the concession stands were gutted and rebuilt and the city gave around $10,000 for new netting to catch foul balls. Upgrades to the bleachers are next on the list.
In the festive mood? Holiday light displays in South Bend, Niles and other parts of Michiana
Until he was arrested, Jackson had been a prominent figure in the board’s fundraising efforts. Jackson told the Tribune last year that he got involved in the project because he had fond memories of playing at the field while growing up.
“I’m young, and I wouldn’t want to see it taken away from the city. I think people have stayed away from it and forgotten about it,” Jackson said in a Tribune interview in June 2020.
A GoFundMe page that raised nearly $5,000 for renovations was listed under Jackson’s name though the Millers said Jackson did not control the account and the money has all been used for stadium upgrades.
The Millers said they’re unsure whether adult leagues will continue. If they do, the board will have financial control and be more involved in oversight.
Regardless of the adult league’s future, Pepper Miller said the stadium is still in good hands.
“We’re still planning on doing great thing for the stadium and the kids. It’s a shame one person can hurt the group like this,” she said.
Email Marek Mazurek at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek