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.

Unwilling or unable? The problems with paying restitution

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.

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.

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.”