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

More than the money: What determines an embezzler’s sentence

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.

Here’s why:

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.

Augusta County Commonwealth's Attorney Lee Ervin

Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lee Ervin. Courtesy of Lee Ervin

“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.

Pink-collar prosecution: How to handle female embezzlers

Image

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.

The 4-1-1 on pink-collar crime

By Krysta Huber

The likes of Bernie Madoff and Enron executives made “white-collar crime” an everyday term in the English language. But even before these men were entangled in their own elaborate schemes, women were committing several types of financial crimes that, increasingly, have come to be identified with them.

The term “pink-collar crime” was coined in the late 1980s by criminologist Kathleen Daly. Pink-collar crime, according to Daly’s definition in a 1989 article in Criminology, a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on crime and deviant behavior, refers to female office workers in low- to mid-level positions — bookkeepers, managers, clerks — who steal money from their employers.

So what exactly might a pink-collar criminal be charged with? Embezzlement, larceny, fraud? What form of sentence and punishment are involved if she is convicted? What are the relevant laws in Virginia and how are they different from other states?

And why does pink-collar crime seem to get less attention from the public and news media? The “Trading Trust for the Till” team answers those questions in this terminology guide.

1. What kind of offenses do pink-collar criminals typically commit?

Pink-collar criminals usually focus on several crimes involving stealing property or money. Such offenses include burglary, embezzlement, fraud, larceny and robbery. According to the Virginia State Police, a stolen property offense is committed by “receiving, buying, selling, possessing, concealing or transporting any property with the knowledge that it has been unlawfully taken.”

2. I’ve heard financial crimes sometimes referred to as “crimes of opportunity.” What does that mean?

Crimes of opportunity aren’t limited to pink- and white-collar crimes. What the phrase really emphasizes is access. Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony McFaddin uses the example of a drug dealer to describe it: “If you have the access to drugs and then have access to the market, you’re going to sell [drugs].” The same goes for pink-collar criminals: Women are hired for office positions where they manage the books, write checks and keep records, giving them not only access to the money, but also the ability to hide what they are doing with it.

3. What are pink-collar criminals typically charged with?

Embezzlement and forgery appear to be among the most common offenses:

Embezzlement occurs when an offender takes “money, property or some other thing of value entrusted to her care, custody or control,” and uses it for her own purposes, according to Virginia law.

Forgery is often committed by writing checks. Forgery occurs when someone changes, copies or imitates something “without authority or right, with the intent to deceive or defraud by passing the copy or thing altered or imitated” as something that’s real, according to state law.

4. What about larceny? Doesn’t that simply mean stealing? Why aren’t pink-collar criminals commonly charged with larceny?

Larceny is theft, yes, and embezzlement is a form of larceny. But in Virginia, embezzlement occurs when the thief had some form of control or care over the property that was taken. Buena Vista Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Russell says embezzlement is essentially taking money or property with permission — because the individual had been entrusted with its care — and then using it for the wrong purposes. Larceny, however, occurs when a person takes money without permission and uses it for whatever purpose he or she chooses.

Because pink-collar crimes often involve women taking from people they know in a small business, church or other organization, we considered the breach of trust to be a critical component. So we focused most of our research and reporting on embezzlement.

5. How is embezzlement punished in Virginia?

Criminal charges are categorized as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The difference in the case of theft is the value of what’s stolen. A person is charged with misdemeanor embezzlement when she has embezzled less than $200 and felony embezzlement when she has embezzled more than $200. A person charged with misdemeanor embezzlement is subject to up to one year in prison, while felony embezzlement is up to 20 years in prison.

6. If convicted, is the pink-collar criminal required to repay any of the money or property stolen? If so, how much?

Yes. The amount the pink-collar criminal is required to repay is known as restitution. The actual dollar amount is based on the amount stolen, though it’s rarely, if ever, the full amount. According to Russell, restitution is a condition of the suspended portion of the defendant’s sentence. If the defendant fails to repay, she is subject to further jail time. But Russell says it’s usually a method of last resort: A judge will first sit down with the pink-collar criminal to discuss why she isn’t on track with her payments. If that conversation is ineffective, the judge may order her back to prison for 30 to 60 days, just to send a message.

7. Do pink-collar criminals actually serve much prison time?

The amount of time spent in prison for many criminal offenses in Virginia is determined by the Virginia sentencing guidelines. The guidelines don’t cover every offense, but larceny and embezzlement are included. Unlike in other states, circuit judges in Virginia are not bound by these guidelines. Rather, they are required only to review them before sentencing. Russell said the sentencing guidelines follow a point system, which is based on statistical data from past convictions for similar crimes. The guidelines weigh the nature of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, factors about the crime itself and the defendant’s background. In his experience with embezzlement cases, Russell said, the defendant’s criminal history seems to play a significant role in the number of years the defendant will spend in jail.

Russell also says restitution — specifically whether it’s been paid prior to sentencing — can affect a defendant’s sentence. He says defendants who pay their restitution in full prior to sentencing often spend less time behind bars. So defense attorneys will push their clients to pay back as much money as possible before sentencing.

8. Why does pink-collar crime seem to get less attention from the public and news media?

Experts and law enforcement we interviewed all pointed to the perception that pink-collar crimes are victimless. Pink-collar crimes don’t have the same physical evidence of harm in the way a murder or an assault case does. So many pink-collar crime stories don’t sound appealing enough for the evening news or the front page of the newspaper. But all of our experts agreed that that perception is wrong: The victims in these cases are the business owners and their families, who are in jeopardy of losing their livelihoods at the hands of a single employee.

Twice burned, finally shy

By Krysta Huber

When Will Harris, owner and president of North Fork Lumber & Log Homes in Goshen, Va., hired Patricia Truslow as his bookkeeper in 1999, he described her as bubbly and personable.

Harris and his wife, Jane, both liked the new employee and figured her a solid replacement for the company’s former bookkeeper, who had left after accepting another job.

But two and a half years and nearly half a million dollars later, Harris says, he discovered that Truslow’s friendly personality hid a compulsive liar who breached his trust.

It wasn’t until he made plans to buy a new piece of property with what cash he had in his bank account, Harris said, that he realized just how tight North Fork Lumber’s situation had gotten.

“She really set out to destroy my business,” Harris said. “She really thought she was going to bankrupt it, take what money she could, and nobody would ever look back.”

Harris says Truslow embezzled about $468,000 from North Fork Lumber between January 1999 and April 2001.

At the insistence of his wife, Harris said, he finally fired Truslow. But that wasn’t before he says he wrongly laid off two other employees: his forester and his lumber grader.

“I kept looking at [the numbers] and saying, you know, ‘Our inventory cost is too high; our wood cost is too high,’ and ended up firing the forester … basically over the embezzlement,” Harris said. “And he told me, he said, ‘I’m telling you, something else is wrong.’ I didn’t believe him and I fired him.”

As hard as Harris was hit by Truslow, he was reluctant to change his business practices to reflect a distrust of everyone. Less than six years later, that decision cost him again. A second employee, Michelle Lawhorn, embezzled about $170,000 from him between 2007 and 2009 by forging checks, Harris says.

“If somebody wants to steal from you, they’re going to steal from you,” Harris said. “If you’re dealing with a crook, they’re going to be a crook.”

Repeated attempts to reach both Lawhorn and Truslow for comment were unsuccessful. After learning that Lawhorn no longer worked for her most recently known employer, the Trading Trust for the Till team was unable to find her. The only phone number listed for Truslow has been disconnected.

Lawhorn was contacted via social media but she did not reply to any of the team’s Facebook messages. Truslow does not appear to have a social media presence.

The process and the benefits

Harris said the nature of his business allowed Truslow to write herself checks for large dollar amounts without his knowledge. Because lumber is a fairly expensive commodity and the industry is labor-intensive, Harris said, there’s a lot of cash exchanging hands to pay for the goods, services and equipment needed.

Combine that with the extensive privileges Truslow had as a bookkeeper — check-signing authority, sole responsibility for issuing invoices and completing payables — and it’s easy to see how schemes like hers could go unnoticed for months, even years.

“She was writing a check to herself and coding it in the checkbook … that it had been for a load of logs. A load of logs might be $2,000 to $4,000, depending on what kind of material it is,” Harris said. “And if you get in … 15 loads a day, that’s a lot of money going out in a day. So it was very easy for her to sell herself a load of logs that didn’t exist.”

As soon as she was fired, though, Harris says, it didn’t take long to figure out what she’d been up to.

The first of the month came just days later, but, Harris says, he didn’t receive his bank statements in the mail. He called the bank and an employee told him to wait a few days to see if the statements arrived.

Instead, Harris decided to go to the post office to see if anyone had picked up the bank statements in person. Because Goshen is a small town, Harris says, he knew the post office employee would remember if someone had asked her for them.

“[Truslow] came [into the post office] and she said she needed the mail, and she took those and handed the rest of the mail back. She told [the post office employee] to put it back in the box and that somebody else would come down to pick it up later, that she had to go back home,” Harris said. “And that’s exactly what she did. She took the bank statements home with her.”

Truslow was sentenced to 14 years in prison and required to pay nearly $390,000 in restitution, according to her case file.

In a letter written to Circuit Judge George Honts asking him to reconsider her sentence, Truslow argued that the sentence was substantially higher than what was called for in Virginia’s sentencing guidelines, a point-based system Virginia judges consult to determine the appropriate punishment.

But Harris says the judge had his reasons for the sentence imposed, and he vividly recalls what Honts said to Truslow in court on July 3, 2002.

“I’ll never forget what [Honts] said when he turned to [Truslow],” Harris said. “‘In all my years of being a judge,’ – and he was an older judge, he died a few years afterwards – he said, ‘I’ve never met a more cool and calculating criminal than what you are. Because of that I’m going to deviate from the guidelines. The guidelines call for 14 years and I’m going to give you 28. I’m going to make you pull 14 of them.’”

Thirteen years after Truslow was sentenced, Harris says, he hasn’t received a dime from her — and no longer expects to. During the investigation, Harris says, investigators told him that people who commit embezzlement rarely have anything to show for it once they’re caught.

Not believing them, Harris hired his own private investigator see if there were any assets he could claim — even assets he could attach to Truslow’s children.

But Truslow had been a step ahead: She rented or leased everything — cars for her kids, a vacation home in Hilton Head, S.C. for $10,000 a week and a vacation home on Smith Mountain Lake with a boat to match.

“The state police told me as soon as they came and got involved, ‘Don’t expect to get anything because you’re not getting it,’” Harris said. “I didn’t believe that, but after it was all said and done I realized I wasn’t getting anything. There was no stash of any money anywhere.”

What’s more, Harris says, the $468,000 sum Truslow accumulated is only half of what he lost from her embezzlement.

“What most people don’t understand, is well, you lost a half of a million dollars, well you really lost a million because you had a half million say, in your credit line, and that got eaten up,” Harris said. “There’s no money there to work with so now you have to go borrow another half million to stay in business and you end up with a million dollars worth of debt out of the thing.”

Déjà vu

Truslow embezzled more than twice as much from North Fork Lumber as Lawhorn did. But for Harris, the second theft was harder to confront.

Harris says he had only 45 days to turn Lawhorn in to police after discovering she’d been forging his signature on payroll checks. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to make a claim on his employee theft insurance policy. Harris waited until the 44th day.

The [Truslow] debacle — I could go in there and fire her because it was you know, an employee-employer relationship: I mean I liked her. We were friends, but there was no closeness there, really,” he said.

“[Lawhorn], I kind of treated as a daughter, or almost. If she needed something, she’d come to me. I gave her advice on lots of things through the years. I didn’t expect this.”

Harris says Lawhorn, whom he hired when she was just 16, worked for the company at the same time as Truslow and witnessed the consequences of her embezzlement.

In fact, Harris says, Lawhorn was responsible for ensuring that the office followed a new system of checks and balances to prevent any employee theft from happening again.

After Truslow was fired, Harris limited check-signing authority to Harris, his wife and his son. He assigned one employee to check writing and another to handling receivables, and he made sure two people were in the office at all times.

But even with those checks in place, Harris says, Lawhorn found a loophole: She could imitate Harris’ signature so well that even he couldn’t tell Lawhorn’s version from his own.

Finding Forgiveness in Hardship

Harris believes from what he knew about Lawnhorn and about Truslow that Lawhorn’s family circumstances were different. Her husband had been laid off a number of times and was frequently between jobs.

Harris said Lawhorn asked him for loans, sometimes as much as $10,000, on more than one occasion. He gave her the money, even though he knew she couldn’t pay it back.

But the gifts from Harris weren’t enough. Lawhorn turned to payday loans to keep her family afloat. But Harris says the payday loans drove Lawhorn into more debt.

A person using payday loans will borrow the amount of his or her paycheck and is expected to pay back the debt with interest when the next paycheck arrives.

But Harris says the interest rates on those loans are so high, in some cases as much as 1,000 percent, that the person falls into a trap where he or she can’t pay anything back.

Harris says he’ll never forget Lawhorn’s expression when he told her he knew she was stealing.

“She looked at [the copies of the forged checks] and it was just like — it was almost the same look Pat had when the judge sentenced her,” Harris said. “I’ll never forget it: The blood just kind of flowed out of her …. From the top down, she got pale — and she [responded in the same way Truslow had] and said, ‘I can’t explain it.’”

Harris says he went to Lawhorn’s family to see if they could pay some of the money back before involving the police. But that route proved unsuccessful and he learned his insurance policy would not cover the full amount of money stolen.

The Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office began investigating, and Lawhorn was charged. She was convicted of 10 counts of embezzlement on May 9, 2012 and ordered to pay just over $165,000 in restitution.

Lawhorn spent one year in jail and another under house arrest. Eighteen years of the total sentence imposed were suspended.

Harris said he contacted the commonwealth’s attorney before Lawhorn’s sentencing because he knew she had a teenage daughter.

He says he thought it would do more harm than good for her to spend a number of years in jail, during which time she’d be unable to pay restitution.

“I had a different outlook on this one than I did on the first one,” Harris said. “I wasn’t mad ever on this one — I mean as soon as I found out, I was like over it the next day.”

For as financially straining as the cases were for North Fork Lumber, Harris says he learned an important personal lesson.

For the first year after [Truslow was sentenced], I was literally mad with the world — I was mad with everybody I came in contact with,” Harris said. “It took me a little while to realize I had everything that was really important: I had my family; I had my health; my family had their health. We really had everything we needed anyway.”

“It slowed us down [financially] … but in reality, it didn’t make a whole lot of difference, because it’s only money. And you can always make some more.”