Investigator: Gender has little to do with tendency to embezzle
GREENCASTLE -- The recent arrest of a Greencastle woman who allegedly embezzled more than $87,000 from her employer seems to be part of a Putnam County trend.
Sheila Shoemaker, 38, is the sixth local woman in the last two-and-half years to have been charged with stealing money from the place at which she was employed.
Shoemaker was arrested on Oct. 21. She had been employed as the head teller at First Financial Bank in Greencastle and had worked there since January 2005. According to court documents, she began stealing from the bank as soon as her employment began.
Five similar stories have occurred in Putnam County over the past few years.
Rita K. Lang, 56, of Indianapolis was arrested in January 2008 and was sentenced in January 2009 to two years -- four-and-a-half months at the Putnam County Jail, four-and-a-half months on house arrest and the remainder of her sentence on probation.
Lang was convicted of one count of Class D felony theft in connection with thefts from the Van Bibber Lake Conservancy District, where she was employed as the business operations manager of the conservancy district. Her thefts, which included salary overpayments, stolen cash from the sale of conservancy district trash bags and penalties and interest caused by Lang's negligence, totaled just more than $23,000.
In early August 2008, 44-year-old Tamera S. Wade of Greencastle was arrested for stealing more than $130,000 from a Greencastle accounting firm where she had been employed for four years.
In December 2008, Wade was sentenced on one count of Class D felony to two-and-a-half years. She was ordered to spend 18 months of the sentence on house arrest and the remainder on probation.
Wade violated the terms of her house arrest and was sent to prison in the summer of 2009. She completed the executed portion of her sentence in September of this year.
Michelle S. Everhart, 36, of Poland was arrested on Aug. 25, 2008 after an audit at Cloverdale United Methodist Church, where she was employed as an administrative assistant, revealed missing funds.
It was discovered that, beginning in March 2007, Everhart had begun stealing money from the church and making unauthorized purchases on its credit cards. The total of her thefts was just more than $5,700.
In January 2009, Everhart was convicted of one count of Class D felony theft and sentenced to six months in the Putnam County Jail, six months on home detention and one year on probation.
In December 2009, Tammy Y. Mitchener, 34, was arrested for stealing more than $56,000 from local special education cooperative Old National Trail, where she was a treasurer.
Mitchener had created a dummy corporation to which she would write checks from accounts at Old National Trail.
She was convicted of Class C felony corrupt business influence and Class D felony theft and was sentenced in July 2009 to three years executed at the Indiana Department of Correction and two years on probation.
In August 2009, it was discovered that Melynda J. Fenwick, 38, who had been employed as a financial secretary at Gobin Memorial United Church since 2004, had been stealing from the church nearly the whole time.
To avoid suspicion, Fenwick would make up fake bank statements. Her thefts totaled more than $350,000.
Fenwick was convicted in November 2009 on six counts of Class C felony forgery and six counts of Class D felony theft, and was sentenced to 10 years at the Indiana Department of Correction, followed by five years of probation.
The fact that so many women turn out to be embezzlers should not be all that surprising, according to Indiana State Police First Sgt. Scott Stockton, who heads up investigations on organized crime and auto theft cases for the ISP.
"Historically, women hold these types of positions where they're in charge of money and it's available to them," he said. "Look at it even at the collegiate level ... walk into a college accounting class, and probably 80 percent of the people in it are going to be female."
Stockton said embezzlement is hardly a phenomenon that is exclusive to Putnam County.
"I hear people say a lot that this is worse in Putnam County, and I really don't believe that it is," Stockton said. "I don't think Putnam County is any more susceptible than anyplace else. It just so happened that a lot of people got caught there in a short period of time. A lot of these crimes just never come to light."
That is particularly true in the private sector, Stockton said.
"Private companies tend to just dismiss the employee because they don't want the publicity of a scandal," he said. "And that's not good, because then the person can go out, get another job handling money and steal again."
In all six cases, officials at the businesses or churches took a good, hard look at their financial practices.
Robert Shula, who works in the marketing department of Teacher's Credit Union's Indianapolis corporate office, and Fred Soloman, a spokesperson at PNC Bank's corporate office in Pittsburgh, both said their companies did not comment on security policies.
Phone calls to First Financial, Old National Bank, North Salem State Bank and Tri-County Bank & Trust were not returned.
Stockton said there are several red flags employers should be on the lookout for if they believe employees are embezzling.
"It's not a good idea to have one person who handles the books exclusively," he said. "But if you do, be wary if they're hesitant to produce them. They'll make up all kinds of excuses why they don't want to show them to you ... 'You don't understand the system,' etc. But the fact is, math hasn't changed, and if there's something fishy someone is going to see it."
Employees who are embezzling are also often hesitant to take days off or vacations, Stockton said.
There are also safeguards Stockton recommended companies put into place.
"Checks should need double endorsements, and we recommend not using signature stamps," he said. "There should also be more than one person who handles mail."
In Everhart's case, Stockton said, she was the only one who got the mail, and as such she could head off the credit card statements.
"She'd even go get the mail on the weekends," he said. "And everyone said, 'Isn't she nice? Isn't she wonderful?' It's usually people like that -- people who seem to be going above and beyond the call of duty -- who are ripping you off."
Stockton said companies should also to be conscious of bonding employees for appropriate amounts.
"An employee who handles money should never be bonded for less than the amount of money they're going to be in control of at any given time," he said.
This turned out to be an issue in both Lang's and Fenwick's cases -- both women were bonded for much less than they stole. Gobin has a civil case pending against Fenwick to try to recoup more of the church's losses.
Many people who steal from their employers, Stockton said, justify their thefts with things like a spouse's job loss or a sick relative. They usually have every intention of paying the money back, but the things spiral out of control.
"People become confident as they steal more and more and don't get caught," Stockton said. "The amounts start small, and they always go up. It never flat lines. It only stops when they get caught."
Part of the reason for that, Stockton said, is that when people steal money regularly, those funds become part of the household income.
"It's a source of funds and they've grown accustomed to it," he said. "I've seen where people have actually kept ledgers when they started stealing, but after a while they lose track, and pretty soon there is no way they're ever going to be able to pay it back."
As was the case with Shoemaker and the five Putnam County women who were convicted of embezzling, Stockton said most women who steal from their employers are "pillars of the community, church-going, God-fearing people."
Stockton said he doesn't see an end to embezzlement crimes coming any time soon.
"With the economy the way it is, you're going to see more of this," he said. "People are losing incomes, and they're going to try to sustain the level of lifestyle they're used to."