Woman pleads guilty to theft from schools

Saturday, July 26, 2003

A former bookkeeper will spend the next eight years in prison for stealing more than $97,000 belonging to Cape Girardeau and Jackson school children.

Boone County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Roper sentenced Robin Michelle Whitson, 39, of Cape Girardeau to two consecutive four-year terms in prison.

The former bookkeeper for the 32nd Judicial District's juvenile office pleaded guilty in June to two counts of felony stealing. She was charged in September 2002 with depositing 10 checks meant for Cape Girardeau and Jackson schools into her personal bank account at Cape Regional Credit Union by using an ATM.

Whitson's case was transferred to Boone County on a change of venue. In exchange for her guilty plea, the prosecution agreed to dismiss eight other counts of stealing and would not request more than 10 years in prison for the remaining two charges.

Court faint

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said the defendant's mother fainted in the courtroom after the sentence was read aloud. Whitson, currently free on a $50,000 surety bond, was ordered by the judge to report to Boone County Jail Tuesday at 9 a.m. to be transferred to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Defense attorney Steve Wilson said a wheelchair was brought in for Whitson's mother, and that she soon recovered.

Wilson said his client was hoping for probation, which is what was recommended in a presentence investigation report prepared for the court by a probation and parole officer.

He said by going to prison Whitson will not be able to make any kind of restitution, but added that none was ordered by the judge.

Cape Girardeau schools superintendent Mark Bowles said Whitson's crimes hurt the district and its children.

"My concern more than any other is that we are still out the money that we didn't get from the grant," he said. "There's no way to get back from her the money she stole."

The bank account investigated by the sheriff's department showed a balance of $1,259 on Sept. 10, 2002.

The illicit deposits began on Sept. 17, 2001. The funds were from a juvenile justice grant written by and run by chief juvenile officer Randy Rhodes. Checks were mailed from the state to the juvenile office to be used for alternative school programs in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties.

According to the sheriff's department, the checks were mailed to Whitson, who was supposed to forward them to the county treasurer for deposit in the general fund. When schools submit requests for juvenile justice funds each month, the bookkeeper sends a purchase order to the county auditor asking checks be issued to the schools.

The checks, totaling $97,254.74, ranged in amounts from $6,000 to $13,766.99, investigators said. Whitson had signed the checks with fake endorsements, but in one case had signed her own name. The embezzlement was discovered when the bank returned a check last August because it was not endorsed. Swingle was notified about the check on Sept. 5.

Precautionary measures are still being developed by the county auditor's office to prevent similar thefts in the future, Rhodes said.

"Efforts were made to move most of the money the county gets to go toward wire transfers straight to the banks," he said.

Rhodes said he was notified shortly after the sentencing by Swingle.

"It was a serious offense and I'm sorry that her family now has to live with the consequences," he said.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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