A former Windsor resident will serve at least a year in jail after a judge found her guilty of six felonies in a long-term embezzlement scheme that targeted her Healdsburg employer.
Over a four-year period, April G. Hale, 38, stole more than $100,000 from her then employer, the Law Offices of Michael A. Villa through a series of unauthorized electronic transfers from the firm’s checking account.
As the office bookkeeper/office manager, Hale had access to the company’s financial records and used her position to systematically manipulate the firm’s receivable accounts, falsify monthly bank reconciliations, balance sheets, and profit/loss statements. Villa described Hale’s actions as “skillfully misleading both the firm’s outside certified public accountant and me as to the true financial condition of the business.”
According to Villa, Hale had been using unauthorized electronic transfers from the firm’s checking account to pay for personal expenses such as credit cards, utility bills and cell phones.
Villa said Hale had earned his trust professionally and personally in what appeared to be a calculated effort to defraud the businesses. “I had no idea, absolutely none. She had complete unqualified trust,” he said.
Villa said Hale had become a personal friend of the family and was the only non-family member to ever babysit for his two young daughters. He said he hoped his experience would remind other business owners to remain vigilant.
“You don’t think that a single employee, and she was the only employee I’ve ever had, you don’t think a single employee can do that much harm to a small business, but they can,” he said. “Especially if you’re not careful and I was not careful enough.”
Villa said the theft caused serious harm to the business. The firm was forced to downsize offices, a move that caused the firm to lose its subtenants, and was in danger of closing. On a personal level, Villa said the family was in danger of losing their home and said the theft took a toll on his health.
“She knew exactly what the financial fortunes of the firm were and also the toll it was taking on me emotionally and my health,” he said.
Villa uncovered the theft by accident when he came in on a weekend to catch-up on paperwork. He said he opened a bank statement to check on a $10 bank charge for receiving paper statements and saw sections of the bank statement that had clearly been removed or altered from statements Hale had opened.
As the business owner, Villa said he had been looking for fraud where he thought it would be most likely, and while he checked items like canceled checks, he didn’t check the electronic transfers.
“She would frequently destroy the part with electronic activity evident, staple the reconciliations on top, to obscure the fact page one was missing.”
According to Villa, Hale used the stolen funds to finance what he described as “a lavish lifestyle” which included the rental of a 2-story, 4-bedroom home in the Foothills section of Windsor, plastic surgery, the purchase of a Chevy Tahoe as well as jewelry, designer clothes, dinners, regular beauty treatments, trips to and hotels in Reno, San Francisco and Sacramento, among other things. In a written statement, he said she even purchased, at the firm’s expense, frozen rodents for her pet python.
Hale’s attorney, Evan Zelig, said his client did not have an extravagant lifestyle and used the money for what she considered necessary expenses.
Hale pled no-contest to six felonies including one count of grand theft and five of identity theft. According to deputy district attorney Robin Hammond, the judge later found her guilty on all counts.
Zelig said the criminal court treats a no contest plea as equivalent to a guilty plea but a no contest plea can’t be used against a defendant in a civil suit.
Villa said the experience has been hard but he said he’s pleased with the result.
“I have nothing but praise for Miss Hammond’s handling of the case,” said Villa. “She was a credit to the DA’s office. She cares about the victims of crime and it showed time and time and time again. She treated me with empathy and I’m pleased for what she did.”
In a written statement Assistant District Attorney Diana Gomez said “Employee thefts from their employers take a tremendous toll on our community. Not only are these types of crimes difficult to detect, once they are detected they usually involve a significant amount of monetary loss and take a personal toll on the employer who finds out a trusted employee has been stealing from them for years.”