Accused embezzler Jim Demers entered a plea of not guilty Thursday afternoon at his arraignment in Juneau District Court.
Demers, 48, has been charged with two felonies -- one count of second-degree theft and one count of altering business records. Both counts stem from his duties as treasurer for the Alaska Folk Festival.
``I am astonished. I don't know of the grounds he possibly could have to claim that he is not guilty,'' said Riley Woodford, president of the folk festival.
``The evidence is voluminous and speaks for itself,'' said Woodford, also a Juneau Empire reporter.
Demers could not be reached for comment today. His lawyer, James Curtain, said, ``I have no comment and I'm not going to allow you to talk to him.''
Folk festival officers revealed to the public this week that their suspicions had blossomed into allegations. They suspected that Demers, treasurer from 1994 to 1999, had violated their trust. After his resignation as treasurer in May 1999, festival officers scrutinized ledgers and bank statements and were led to believe Demers had stolen about $12,000. He confessed to police about three weeks ago that he had embezzled, but the amount he admitted to was $3,000 to $4,000, police said.
Demers ran for a seat on the Juneau Assembly last fall and lost by a narrow margin. He served as an information officer in the Coast Guard here in the 1980s, and returned to Juneau in the early '90s after his retirement. His positions since then have included operations officer for Juneau Trolley Car Co. He co-founded Trail Mix in 1990-91.
Within the past month, Demers suggested he be given Tom Garrett's spot on the assembly after Garrett resigned to take a job in Arizona.
At Thursday's hearing, defense attorney Curtain waived Demers' right to a grand jury hearing and also his right to a preliminary hearing.
Judge Larry Weeks informed Demers of his right to have a grand jury review the evidence in the case and decide ``whether there is sufficient evidence to believe you are guilty.''
``Are you willing to proceed without the indictment?'' Weeks asked.
``Yes, sir,'' Demers said.
Demers then entered a plea of not guilty and requested a jury trial. Weeks scheduled the trial for four days beginning Oct. 23, with a pre-trial hearing Aug. 9.
Because Demers has no prior criminal record, Assistant District Attorney Sue McLean agreed he could be released on his own recognizance on condition that he stay in touch with his attorney, remain in Juneau and have no contact with the ``agents or employees of the Alaska Folk Festival.''
Festival board member Rex Blazer said after the arraignment, ``It was a surprise to us that he entered a not guilty plea. We now need to understand the (legal) process and go forward.''
Just before the hearing, 15-year folk festival member and volunteer Joyce Levine called the case ``amazing'' and ``a real bummer.''
``It's like the Grinch who stole Christmas -- except (that in the Dr. Seuss tale), the Grinch gives it back at the end. Maybe Jim will see in his heart that what he did was wrong and give (the money) back,'' Levine said.
Levine noted the popular annual music festival continues ``strong in everybody's heart.''
``He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. His attitude put people off,'' Levine said. ``But because he was a volunteer for (seven years for) the folk festival, we accepted him. We set aside our dislike. It's one of the wonderful things about Juneau that we are so accepting of different people; but it is also one of the vulnerable things about Juneau.''