Former Project Hope employee sentenced to 10 years

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A former employee for Project Hope pleaded guilty and was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison for stealing $3,600 from the not-for-profit organization.

Circuit Judge Benjamin Lewis sentenced Sherma Wilks, 38, of 3916 Hopper Drive, to seven and three years consecutively on two counts of felony forgery for forging two checks worth $1,700 and $1,900. A third count was dropped as part of a plea agreement.

Lewis will retain jurisdiction over Wilks for 120 days, at the end of which he will review her prison report and determine if she is eligible for probation. If Lewis decides to release Wilks on five years' probation, a restitution hearing will be held to determine how much Wilks took and how much she would be able to pay back, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said.

Project Hope, a Cape Girardeau-based faith organization, accused her of stealing $71,000, Swingle said. At the time of her sentencing Monday, she had given $8,000 back in restitution.

"She will get some prison time, but yet Project Hope will get a big chunk of its money back, too," Swingle said.

If she is not released from prison early and serves the full 10 years, Project Hope loses the right to receive restitution through the criminal justice system.

"Of course I would have liked to have it all restored," organization director Denis Rigdon said of the restitution. "A lot of times people don't get anything back."

Wilks was arrested in June when Project Hope officials reported the thefts to police. She worked at the organization for 18 months and was accused of taking advantage of an online banking program the organization used to prepare checks.

The thefts were discovered when Wilks left the agency May 25 and a professional accounting firm was hired to help with the books, Rigdon said.

Project Hope worked with Swingle to come up with an acceptable plea agreement, according to Rigdon.

"The most important thing to us is an opportunity for a real reconciliation," he said of Wilks' admission of guilt.

kmorrison@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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