Church still coping after 12-year embezzlement

By Happy Carlock

Marilyn Dudley was charged with 24 counts of embezzlement last year after she stole about $157,000 from Collierstown Presbyterian Church. Over the course of 12 years, she took from the Presbyterian Women’s funds, the church’s annual dinner funds and the memorial funds that she managed. While Dudley sits in prison, her former congregation is still recovering from the loss, The Rev. Skip Hastings says.

Betsy Cribb contributed to this story.

Discovering the embezzlement

A small, trusting community

Bolstering the church’s bookkeeping

Moving forward

Greed, need or inequality: What drives a woman to embezzle

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.”

Washington and Lee University Sociology Professor David Novack

Washington & Lee University Sociology Professor David Novack.
Courtesy of Washington and Lee Communications

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.

Pink-collar plight

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.

Linda Wilder.

Collierstown Presbyterian Church member Linda Wilder. The Rockbridge Report

“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.

Pink-collar prosecution: How to handle female embezzlers


By Happy Carlock

They’re slow, surreptitious and deceptive. Instead of using violence, they gradually gain the trust of their employers, only to commit some of the most expensive crimes in Virginia.

Female embezzlers are draining small businesses, churches and other organizations that entrust these women with their finances. Lawyers say women are increasingly becoming the perpetrators of financial crimes because they tend to hold bookkeeping and money-handling jobs.

“Embezzlement is one of those lines of cases where you see a lot of female defendants,” Rockbridge County Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias said. “I would say . . . of the cases [we see], embezzlements probably are heavily weighted toward female offenders.”

Last year Marilyn Dudley was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison for embezzling $157,000 from Collierstown Presbyterian Church.

Patricia Truslow was convicted in 2002 of 28 counts of embezzlement. As bookkeeper for North Fork Lumber & Log Homes, she stole more than $468,000 from her employer from 1999 to 2001. Michelle Lawhorn was convicted in 2009 of embezzling $170,000 from the same business.

Alison Mutispaugh was also convicted in 2009 of nine counts of embezzlement after she stole more than $553,000 from nine Lexington businesses.

Lexington Attorney David Natkin. Photo courtesy of David Natkin.

Lexington Attorney David Natkin. Courtesy of David Natkin

Billias says that in the last 10 years, he has had 62 defendants convicted of felony embezzlement. About two thirds of those – 42 – were women. Lexington attorney David Natkin says that every embezzlement case he has handled in the past five years has involved women.

Buena Vista has also seen its fair share of pink-collar crime. Women are frequently the defendants in the three to five embezzlement cases Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell sees each year.

And the Rockbridge area isn’t the only hotbed of recent pink-collar crime. Staunton Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Robertson, who handles about a dozen embezzlement cases each year involving both men and women, says the amount of money stolen by embezzlers has gone up. Many of the embezzlers get behind on their finances, he said, and have relatively easy access to a lot of money in their jobs.

In Augusta County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Lee Ervin handles half a dozen cases each year. He has also noticed an increase in the amount of money taken. And he said women tend to be behind the big numbers.

“In most of our bigger embezzlement cases when you get into the tens of thousands of dollars, those seem to have been women within the past few years,” Ervin said.

Checks and imbalances

Embezzlement is committed in a number of ways, but it often involves female bookkeepers and other women in money-handling positions, prosecutors say. Many women will write checks using their business’s money to pay their personal bills. They list the payments in the company’s financial records as business expenses.

Some embezzlers forge the signatures of their employers on checks and cash them, which can result in forgery charges and uttering charges. Forgery involves signing someone else’s name on the check. Uttering is telling the bank that the signature is legitimate.

Often, the embezzler will take a credit card belonging to the business she works for and use it for her own purchases. In Dudley’s case, she opened a personal bank account using Collierstown Presbyterian Church funds. She used that money mostly to pay her mortgage, but also to buy herself clothing and jewelry, according to the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Department.

“When you do that, you can also be charged with things like credit card fraud, credit card forgery, things like that,” Ervin said.

Sometimes in a cash business, however, a woman will embezzle money that comes in before it makes it to the cash register.

Laying down the laws

While most jurisdictions consolidate theft charges into a single statute, Virginia treats embezzlement and larceny as separate charges.

Embezzlement cases can be tougher to prove than simple theft, prosecutors say. In a theft, it’s clear that the thief takes what he or she should not have had access to. But because a bookkeeper or other employee may be entrusted by a business owner with accounts, checkbooks and even cash, things get complicated, Russell said.

Buena Vista Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Russell. Photo courtesy of Peter Jetton

Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell. Courtesy Washington and Lee University Communications

“It’s not like a homicide or a sexual assault or a DUI where it’s all done right away and an arrest is made,” Russell said. “These cases take time to build up and a lot of interviews and looking at documents, and then  typically we will present the indictment to the grand jury after that.”

When a business or organization reports an embezzlement case, the Virginia State Police are ready to call in forensic accountants. But sometimes, business owners choose not to report embezzlement in order to avoid publicity.

Even when a business cooperates, investigators face challenges when multiple people have access to a business or organization’s money.

“Under Virginia law you have to eliminate everybody but the guilty party,” Ervin said. “Sometimes that’s really tough figuring out who actually took the money.”

Guilty as charged

The key to embezzlement is that the defendant had legal access to the money or property stolen, but not legal ownership of it. For an act of embezzlement to be considered a felony, the value of the property stolen must be $200 or more. If less than $200 is stolen, then the defendant can be convicted of embezzlement as a misdemeanor.

“You often times have full confessions. So a lot of times it gets to be more of a sentencing case than on guilt or innocence once you’ve figured out what’s going on.”  Lexington Attorney David Natkin

“Usually the ones who are embezzling from department stores, let’s say like JCPenney, they don’t usually embezzle large sums of money,” Ervin said. “You’re talking maybe a thousand or two. Whereas you get a bookkeeper or an accountant with a doctor’s office or with some other type of professional business, we’ve had cases where they’ve embezzled, 20, 30 40, 50 thousand [dollars].”

The amount an embezzler takes determines whether she gets a lighter sentence for a misdemeanor or a heavier one for a felony. A misdemeanor is punishable by a maximum of 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. An embezzlement of $200 or more is considered a felony. The accused faces one to 20 years in prison and must pay restitution.

Prosecuting pink-collar criminals might not look all that different on paper from the process that violent criminals go through. But female embezzlers often experience more regret, which affects how the trial plays out.

Most female embezzlers express remorse and even relief when their crimes come to light, defense attorney Natkin said. So when the cases go to court, the emphasis is different than in some criminal cases.

“You often times have full confessions,” Natkin said. “So a lot of times it gets to be more of a sentencing case than on guilt or innocence once you’ve figured out what’s going on.”

Unlike violent career criminals, most pink-collar embezzlers have clean records.

“They have financial pressures on them and just have a lot going on in their lives,” Natkin said. “But the courts sure do look dimly on this.”

Natkin said embezzlement is repeatedly referred to as a ‘breach of trust.’

“It’s not just some stranger robbing you, but someone who you deal with, talk to, and work with on a daily basis.”

Hendley Badcock, Betsy Cribb and Krysta Huber contributed to this story.