Click below to learn about six other local embezzlement cases. The defendants stole a total of more than $830,000 of the estimated $2.2 million embezzled in the past 15 years in the Rockbridge area. Their sentences have ranged from probation to five years in prison.
By Hendley Badcock and Happy Carlock
It often starts with just a few hundred dollars “borrowed” with the intent of paying it back.
“Next thing you know, it’s a few years down the line and there’s a whole lot of money missing,” Lexington attorney David Natkin said. “They just start off small and then get in over their heads.”
Female embezzlers are often ordinary women — bookkeepers, treasurers, mothers and trusted friends. Most of them have no criminal record, Natkin said. But when they find themselves compelled by financial need or greed, they begin forging checks and stealing cash from the businesses that entrust them with their money.
A 2013 study by Marquet International, Ltd., a security and consulting firm based in Massachusetts, found that women were responsible for nearly six in 10 embezzlement cases nationwide. But while women committed most embezzlement, men stole 2.3 times as much money as women.
Are these women thieves by nature, or just people who find themselves in a tough spot, desperate for some extra cash?
Motives behind the misdeeds
Staunton Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Robertson has seen more women embezzling greater amounts of money in his jurisdiction in recent years. Some of those cases, he said, were motivated purely by greed.
“Some people just steal,” he said. “They’re kleptomaniacs.”
But Robertson says that in most cases he handles, women embezzle when they are facing financial troubles. With the money dangling in front of them, they succumb to the temptation.
“They typically have children,” Robertson said. “They have financial obligations, they have to support families, that sort of thing.”
Mothers hold a greater share of household responsibilities, even when both parents have jobs, says Washington and Lee University Sociology Professor David Novack.
So having children can put women at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for jobs and getting hired.
“It’s not unusual that women try to find jobs that allow them to get their children to school at a certain time, to pick up their children at a certain time, and which also might give them at least some degree of flexibility when children are sick,” Novack said.
Employers often view those obligations as limits to a woman’s ability and focus in the workplace. That is called the motherhood penalty, a concept studied by sociologists like Cecilia Ridgeway in her book “Framed by Gender.”
“When women give evidence of being mothers in a work context, they trigger an added gender bias that causes others to judge their job competence and commitment more harshly [than men or women without children],” Ridgeway wrote.
That bias can put a woman’s employment or promotion at risk.
“The likelihood of her being able to maintain her job, to have security, to have potential for [upward mobility] and earn a higher salary go down,” Novack said.
By contrast, employers value dads and dads-to-be in what is known as the fatherhood premium.
“The sad truth [is], in our society, women in general are valued less than men . . . There’s just so much evidence that women are second-class citizens.” – Washington and Lee University Sociology Professor David Novack
“If a man thinks that there is a new member of the family coming, that puts that much more pressure on the man to be committed and to be productive . . . to support his growing family,” Novack said.
Although gender discrimination is illegal, people might still be thinking about it but not talking about it.
“The sad truth [is], in our society, women in general are valued less than men,” Novak said. “There’s just so much evidence that women are second-class citizens.”
It is unclear how many embezzlers in the Rockbridge area have young children at the time of their embezzlement, what their familial obligations were and whether they suffered from the motherhood penalty.
But at least three of the major offenders in the Rockbridge area — Michelle Lawhorn, Alison Mutispaugh and Marilyn Dudley — had children who were high school- or college-aged at the time of their embezzlements. Patricia Truslow’s children were adults by the time of her conviction.
Their family responsibilities, coupled with a history of gender discrimination in the workplace, land many women in clerical and bookkeeping positions. These “pink-collar” jobs give women the opportunity to embezzle.
Pink-collar jobs typically offer low prospects of upward mobility and low wages for women. Novak says that gives the embezzlers even more motivation to steal.
“Men are not as likely to [embezzle] because they don’t have the opportunity,” Novack said. “But fortunately, they don’t have the opportunity because they have higher-paying jobs.”
Women living in the Rockbridge area are especially subject to these circumstances, says Linda Wilder, who retired to Rockbridge County after working as a consultant for many years. Wilder thinks the local economic climate limits both sexes in pursuing high-paying jobs.
“We have so few opportunities for women and men that have good advancement,” Wilder said. “We have the universities, and we’ve got banking, but there’s not much else in the county that provides a real job opportunity for women and men.”
For the past 10 years, raises have been almost nonexistent, Wilder says. That limitation could be a driving force behind embezzlement.
“People have needs, and they see people around them who have things,” she said. “So it creates this want, and then right in front of them is a checkbook that is not monitored carefully.”
Guilt-ridden and giving back
Lawyers say that in female embezzlement cases, the perpetrator will usually try to pay the money back. Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell has seen cases where that good intention is what got the women convicted.
“I’ve seen in a couple of cases someone took money from one person or from one employer and then made an effort to try to slowly pay back the money they took,” Russell said. “And then in doing that they take money from someone else, and that’s when they get caught.”
Robertson says he has noticed the same trend.
“They kind of delude themselves into thinking, ‘Well, if I just take it now, I’ll be able to pay it back soon when my income tax return comes in,’” Robertson said. “Eventually an audit is done or somebody actually sees them taking money and they get caught.”
And sometimes, the embezzlers make themselves out to be the victims as a way of neutralizing or rationalizing their criminal behavior.
For example, if a mother cannot afford health insurance and her children need it, she might give an unspoken ultimatum — my kids or my boss. Novack says that drives a woman to steal from her boss.
“They explain, ‘If they paid for my health insurance, I wouldn’t have to steal their money,’” Novack said. “They shift the blame to somebody else.”
Attorneys say most pink-collar crime comes down to women who get in financial binds. But a lot can go into why a woman steals and how she justifies her crime.
“It’s sort of like when they say a plane crashes, it’s not one cause but a whole series of things that come together,” Novack said. “What are her life circumstances? Does she have children to feed? Is she divorced? Is she someone who’s suffered from domestic violence?. . . All of these go hand-in-hand, and a lot of it has to do with gender.”
Betsy Cribb and Krysta Huber contributed to this story.
By Hendley Badcock
If you catch a person stealing from you, you probably expect her to pay you back, whether or not you take the theft to the police.
But in embezzlement cases, trying to ensure that offenders pay back what they stole is a big issue.
“It takes years and years,” Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell said.
And that’s probably the best a victim can hope for. In many cases, victims never see a cent of what they lost.
Restitution – paying back what the embezzler took – is almost always part of an embezzler’s sentence. Typically, an offender will get a prison sentence, but some of that commonly is suspended.
Once the offender is released, she enters probation, during which she is expected to pay restitution to the victim, often in monthly increments. If the offender does not pay, she risks going back to prison and serving the remainder of her sentence.
“They’ve made this promise to make their victim whole,” Staunton Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Robertson said. “If they don’t live up to that promise, they go back in.”
Prosecutors and legal experts cite a number of reasons why offenders often fail to pay restitution, despite the threat of never-ending probation and imprisonment.
For one, the courts realize that some offenders cannot pay back what they took.
“If you’re unable to pay, you really can’t do anything about it,” Dean of Washington and Lee University’s School of Law Nora Demleitner said.
When it comes down to sending those embezzlers back to prison, most judges drag their feet.
Judges want to get the offender back on track. They want the restitution paid, and they understand that keeping the offender in prison won’t solve the problem.
But it’s hard for anyone to find a job after a felony conviction, particularly after serving time in prison.
The offender might have the ability and experience to make a good wage, Demleitner said.
“But are you going to hire her as a bookkeeper?” she asked. “No, and neither will I . . . . It’s going to be hard to get a job even as a stocking assistant at Kroger for this person. So how is she going to be paying anything back?”
Prosecutors know the difficulties involved with restitution. They often negotiate with offenders and with the court.
“A lot of times if the amount of embezzlement . . . isn’t so great, we’ll work them, especially if they did it out of need to feed their family and clothe their family and things like that,” Robertson said.
For example, Robertson said he does not mind reducing the charge to a misdemeanor if the amount stolen isn’t that much over $200.
“[That] makes it a lot easier to get and maintain a job in the future if they pay that restitution,” he said.
In other instances, judges might even arrange a work-release program from prison for offenders who are not paying.
“This is more typical with men, for some reason,” Russell said. “The jail takes them out to the truck stop and they do maintenance or whatever out there and then the money that they earn goes directly into the court’s account.”
Women might not get the same opportunity, though, because work-release programs often require hard physical work.
“You think of storage facilities, warehouse facilities, and much more likely they’ll hire men for these types of jobs,” Demleitner said. “That would be my suspicion — for relatively not-so-educated people with a criminal record, there are still more jobs for men in that area.”
Most embezzlers have to work to make restitution because they have nothing left of the money they took by the time they are caught. They seldom buy houses or other expensive items that can be confiscated or resold.
When the embezzler makes no effort at all, it is not unheard of for her to be taken to prison again.
“[For] the ones that do go back, it’s not for very long,” Russell said. “It might be for 60 days just to send a message like, ‘You haven’t done nearly enough, made nearly enough effort, so you’re going to have to go back for a short time and then get going.’”
So, who is keeping track of what is and isn’t paid?
Oversight of restitution falls outside the law, Demleitner says.
“The law just says you have to pay restitution and if you don’t pay restitution, it can be a violation of your probation or parole condition,” Demleitner said. “Everything else is an administrative structure.”
An offender makes payments to the clerk of the court, not the victim. Her probation officer checks in with the offender to make sure she is making payments.
Either the probation officer or the victim can report a violation in restitution. But it is unclear how many of these reports are made and if anyone responds to them.
“I’m not surprised that some offices are really on top of it and others probably don’t quite know what they’re doing,” Demleitner said.
Unpaid restitution is a problem acknowledged nationwide. Demleitner said one attempt to mitigate the problem was known as day fines. Tried by four states in the 1980s, it mimicked programs begun in Sweden and Germany.
Demleitner said that a person’s day fine is tied to his or her income level.
“It actually becomes feasible for people to pay the fines and the restitution,” she said. But Americans’ notion of equality makes them leery of sliding-scale paybacks.
“I mean, I’m charging someone who makes a million dollars a much higher fine, for example, than I’m asking from someone . . . who makes $10,000 a year,” Demleitner said. “On some level, the paying would be on the same, but the perception clearly is very different.”
And the victim might still see only a small fraction of what was taken if the embezzled amount was large and the offender’s income is small.
Demleitner says a better solution might be a national victims fund.
“You have people pay fines in part to [the fund],” she said. “Then you can equalize between people who can’t get anything and people who can get something.”
For now, the court and the victims will have to accept how much or how little offenders are able to pay.
Need, after all, is what drives many of these women to embezzle in the first place.
“I see a lot of people who are up against it financially and think that somehow they’ll be able to repay,” Robertson said.
Betsy Cribb and Krysta Huber contributed to this story.
By Hendley Badcock
When Patricia Truslow embezzled $468,000 from North Fork Lumber & Log Homes in Goshen over the course of two and a half years, she was sentenced to 28 years in prison. She served 12 of those years and was released in the summer of 2014. To date, she has not paid back a penny of what she stole.
When Michelle Lawhorn embezzled about $170,000 over five years from the same lumber company, she got 20 years. She served a little over a year and spent another year under house arrest. Lawhorn has paid owner Will Harris around $1,400, a small fraction of what she still owes.
Prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and experts agree that, even with state and federal sentencing guidelines, the terms recommended and those imposed for embezzlers, including female embezzlers, can look arbitrary.
The goal of implementing sentencing guidelines in Virginia in 1991 was to decrease disparities in felony punishments. But, in looking at Truslow’s and Lawhorn’s cases, those discrepancies still exist.
“You cannot tell what a sentence means,” Nora Demleitner, Dean of Washington and Lee University’s School of Law, said about the North Fork embezzlers’ punishments.
How did 28 years turn into 12 and 20 years turn into one, Demleitner asked.
Lawyers say that, among other things, sentences are a function of:
State guidelines that give relatively heavier weight to an offender’s prior criminal record than the amount of money embezzled.
A scoring system that penalizes women based on their sex. Judges and prosecutors don’t have a solid explanation for that. But they suspect it’s because women are more likely statistically to repeat economic crimes.
The expectation that a shorter sentence will help ensure that the embezzler will pay restitution. They seldom do, court officials acknowledge.
The prosecutor’s ability to “bundle” the charges against a defendant. A prosecutor may combine a series of small thefts over a six-month period to make one more serious charge, for example.
The attitude of the victim toward his or her embezzler. Often, when a church or small business is involved, the victim knows the criminal well, and might feel a mix of betrayal and sympathy.
The American Bar Association is urging the federal courts to adopt a new set of sentencing guidelines for embezzlers. The organization argues that the guidelines should consider the offender’s motive, effort to mitigate harm and monetary gain compared to the victim’s loss. The Bar Association also suggests looking at victim impact, including noneconomic suffering like emotional trauma.
Demleitner has no doubt that those changes would make a substantial difference in the way Americans think about and handle economic crimes.
“We’ve gotten used to very high sentences for white-collar offenders, and in part people really wanted that,” Demleitner said. “But now people go to prison for 25 years for not even personally enriching themselves . . . . We’ve reached a point where there’s a lot of unhappiness by the people in the system who are really seeing what’s happening.”
The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission’s guidelines for embezzlement do not consider the criteria being pushed by the ABA. Rather, they focus on the amount stolen and, even more, on the offender’s criminal record.
The goal of the guidelines is to make sentencing consistent for people who commit similar crimes and who have similar backgrounds. There are guidelines for everything from traffic violations to drug offenses to murder and rape.
Does money matter?
Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell says one of the unique things about the embezzlement guidelines, compared to the burglary or robbery guidelines, is that they consider how much money was stolen.
But other attorneys are quick to point out that the amount of money isn’t nearly as big a factor in embezzlement sentences as people might think.
For embezzled amounts over $10,000, penalty points are added in figuring the recommended sentence. For cases involving sums below that, the offender often spends very little if any time at all behind bars, Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lee Ervin says.
The higher the embezzled amount goes, the more penalty points the guidelines add.
But the piling on of points stops at $75,000, Russell said.
“There are no more categories higher than that.”
Russell said one of his recent cases involved a woman who stole $400,000.
“Her guidelines were about the same as someone with her record that only embezzled $75,000,” Russell said. “[Seventy-five thousand dollars] is a lot of money, but she was someone that stole multiple times that.”
What seems to be considered more heavily is the offender’s criminal record.
Judging by the past
A criminal record, especially a violent one, is a big factor in a recommended sentence.
“If a person has no criminal history, and only embezzles a few hundred or a thousand dollars, usually [she is] looking at straight probation,” Ervin said.
But an offender can expect to serve some time if she has a criminal history or embezzles tens of thousands of dollars or more, he said.
An embezzler’s criminal record is often used to predict recidivism – the likelihood that he or she will commit a crime again. According to the National Center for State Courts and the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, people convicted of larceny are the most likely of all nonviolent offenders to backslide.
“It doesn’t surprise me that women would recidivate more, especially with property crimes,” Demleitner said. “Once you’re out, you have more financial problems than you do beforehand, to some extent.”
Demleitner said that in some circumstances having a record doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a greater risk to society. A record can reflect things beyond recidivism, including growing up in a high-risk environment.
“If you have a record or not depends on where you live; it depends on how you grow up,” she said. “Record can reflect real culpability, but it can also just reflect kind of bad luck in birth.”
The female penalty
The Virginia sentencing guidelines use a tool called the Nonviolent Risk Assessment that is supposed to help the judge determine whether an embezzler qualifies for a sentence that will keep her out of prison.
Like the rest of the guidelines, the assessment is scored by a point system. This time, age and gender, plus criminal history, come into play.
Women are penalized just for being female – 13 points compared to nine for men. That’s important, because once an offender racks up 32 total points or more, he or she is no longer recommended for a nonprison sentence.
Lawyers and legal experts aren’t sure what makes gender a factor. But they did say the guidelines are driven by data and statistics collected by the sentencing commission.
“I’m guessing that statistics have shown men are more likely to re-offend, relapse on drug cases when they’re ordered to be clean after a drug conviction,” Russell said. “Women are maybe more likely to re-offend on stealing cases.”
Russell said he’s seen a pattern in which women who get into trouble with the law often have trouble controlling their spending. Men tend to not have control over other things, like drugs, alcohol or violence.
In 2002, when Truslow was convicted, the guidelines penalized the offender only for being male. There was no check box for being female.
Weighing the range
Once the offense, criminal history and nonviolent risk are calculated, the guidelines offer a range of sentences for each offender.
Judges can still decide not to follow the guidelines if they file a statement of their reasons. But data from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission show the larceny guidelines had the highest rate of compliance by judges, at 82 percent.
“On property crimes . . . the guidelines usually come up with a pretty reasonable recommendation,” Ervin said.
But even with the range of sentences and the discretion judges can employ, Demleitner sees problems with the system.
“Some judges may feel that they should always be on the low side; some may always be on the high side,” Demleitner said. “The broader your range, the more inequality you’re even hiding just by saying, ‘Well, they’re sentencing within the range.’”
Beyond the guidelines
Truslow and Lawhorn both stole from the same business. And, in both cases, the judges went outside the guidelines.
Truslow spent 12 years in prison, two years over her maximum recommended sentence. Lawhorn spent a little over a year, nearly a year and a half less than her minimum.
While the sentences themselves for the two women did not differ drastically from the recommendations, the time each served did.
Lawyers say those two cases show the most frequent reasons judges go outside the guidelines.
The judge’s reasons for lowering Lawhorn’s sentence are not in her case file, but the judge’s statement for increasing Truslow’s sentence cited her previous embezzlement and larceny conviction.
In 1991, the Waynesboro Circuit Court convicted Truslow of one count of larceny after bailment, which means that her stealing did not have to be proven as trespassing.
“I’ll take a very different look at a person who’s done it out of necessity than I will at a person who’s done it solely out of greed.”– Staunton Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Robertson
Her six-month sentence was entirely suspended, and she went straight into three-years’ probation.
In 2002, the day before Harris went to the police about Truslow, a small Fishersville company that had filed bankruptcy pressed charges against her.
Five months before Rockbridge County Circuit Court convicted Truslow of embezzlement in the Harris case, the Augusta County Circuit Court convicted her of embezzlement, forgery, credit card fraud and obtaining money by false pretense in the Fishersville case.
According to the August County Circuit Court online database, Truslow’s five-year sentence was suspended.
By comparison, Lawhorn had no prior record.
Shortly after her conviction, Truslow filed an appeal of her sentence.
Truslow argued that her sentence surpassed those for violent criminals and drug offenders, even though she was well within the range for a nonprison sanction according to the guidelines.
Truslow’s criminal record and the judge’s referencing her as the “coolest manipulator of the truth” he had ever seen did not paint her as a compelling appellant.
Truslow’s request was denied and her sentence remained.
Although the Virginia guidelines fall short of considering the embezzler’s motive and the crime’s impact on the victim, those factors often make it into courtroom conversation.
“I’ll take a very different look at a person who’s done it out of necessity than I will at a person who’s done it solely out of greed,” Staunton Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Robertson said.
Often, need or greed tells the judge a lot about culpability.
“You can have someone who takes $500 just because they’re greedy versus somebody who takes $5,000 because they have a sick child,” Demleitner said. “We don’t really care about the loss that they’ve made that much in assessing moral guilt.”
The judge and prosecution might also pay attention to the emotions of the offenders and the victims.
“I see a lot of remorse in embezzlement cases,” Robertson said. “I see a lot of people that are up against it financially and thought that somehow they’d be able to repay.”
Because it involves trust and betrayal, embezzlement can be a very personal crime for its victims.
“I’ve seen different emotions from different employers,” Ervin said. “They feel sorry for the victim because they got in such a financial bind. A lot of the victims though have expressed anger at the employees for betraying the trust that they put in them.”
Harris, the owner of North Fork Lumber, said he felt much more sympathy for Lawhorn.
In Lawhorn’s case, he said, he told the prosecutor that Lawhorn had a teenage daughter and being put in jail for a long time wasn’t going to help anyone.
But he felt much more angry toward Truslow, who used Harris’ money to lease cars and homes for herself and her family.
“She had an opportunity to speak [in court] and she just lied continually,” Harris said. “And the judge could see it.”
Although Truslow lost years in prison, Harris and his wife lost years recapturing what had been stolen from their business.
“My business could have easily fallen apart,” he said.
Krysta Huber and Betsy Cribb contributed to this story.