VENTNOR, N.J. — The event was ambitious: a benefit concert Oct. 15 at Ventnor’s Ski Beach designed to raise money for Puerto Rico. It featured donated food for purchase, a suggested $5 entry fee, silent auction, and music and dancing. About 1,500 people attended from Ventnor and nearby Atlantic City and Pleasantville.
But the event also immediately raised questions, and on Wednesday, Ventnor Police Chief Doug Biagi said he had assigned himself and his deputy chief to work the event to watch how things unfolded.
After questions were raised, the department’s subsequent investigation led to the arrest Wednesday of Michael Einwechter, 38, of Longport, a local businessman known for organizing concerts and other events through his group, Amazing Ventnor, as well as for a coffee shop he founded on Dorset Avenue, Ventnor Coffee. He was charged with third-degree theft of checks and money from proceeds received from the Puerto Rico Relief Benefit Concert, police said.
Biagi said just $1,500 of an estimated $18,000 to $20,000 raised at the event was donated to Puerto Rico, where widespread destruction followed Hurricane Maria’s direct hit on Sept. 20. At least some of the money was spent on a yellow pickup truck purchased after the event, which Ventnor police seized Wednesday as forfeiture, Biagi said. Einwechter was released on a summons.
Biagi said the arrest was deeply upsetting to his small beach town, which prided itself on the melting pot event, and whose residents acted out of compassion and a personal knowledge of a hurricane’s destructive force from going through Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“It’s devastating,” Biagi said. “These people put in money out of their own pockets. Merchants put in their foods. Singers, dancers. It was a wonderful day. Everybody who put $5 in, who bought a green bracelet, the merchants, the volunteers with their time — every little kid walking around in a volunteer T-shirt. Not to mention the money didn’t go over there, where it’s needed.”
Jose Ruiz Jr., a local businessman who helped Einwechter organize the concert and who has family in Puerto Rico, said he felt blindsided by the news.
“We’re all very upset about it,” Ruiz said. “He was very vague about it, saying that it was being handled. I trusted him, unfortunately. Personally, I’m kind of stunned.”
Einwechter referred a request for comment to his attorney, Andrew Imperiale, who declined comment. In a Facebook post, Einwechter wrote that he was sorry. He said he no longer was an owner of Ventnor Coffee, which closed early Wednesday.
“After the dust settles and all is clear, I will try to find it in my heart to do good for the community again,” Einwechter wrote. “I am sincerely sorry it has come to this. I am sorry to anyone and everyone involved.”
Einwechter’s Amazing Ventnor group organized summer beach concerts, occasional block parties and other events, including a successful Porchfest last summer. He had recently posted that he would be involved in organizing events in Atlantic City.
Biagi said the proceeds of the benefit were to assist with hurricane relief for United for Puerto Rico, “which aided in the shipping of much-needed supplies to the families in Puerto Rico,” according to a news release from Ventnor. The month-long investigation by detectives Jason Rzemyk and Ted Bergman resulted in Einwechter’s being interviewed Wednesday and subsequently charged with theft, police said.
“As a result of the investigation, a 4-by-4 truck owned by Einwechter was also seized by the police department,” the department said.