Former area lawyer sentenced to 7 years in prison for theft

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Before he sentenced Joe T. Buerkle to prison Tuesday, Missouri appeals court Judge Gary D. Witt called the former local lawyer's actions reprehensible.

Buerkle, a former Cape Girardeau and Jackson lawyer who stole $325,000 from a client's trust fund, was sentenced to serve seven years in prison, but not before pleading to be assigned probation and allowed the opportunity find employment and begin paying restitution.

The state, represented by Dunklin County Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Sokoloff, and Stephen Wilson, Buerkle's attorney, both acknowledged that Buerkle has paid $54,000 in restitution and has a $30,000 cash bond that could also be used.

"With God's help I can do this, but I have to have a record I can walk into a potential employer with," Buerkle told the judge at the Common Pleas Courthouse in Cape Girardeau. "I'm ashamed to be here. As a prosecuting attorney, a city attorney and a practicing attorney, I held the crime I'm charged with as one of the worst."

Buerkle also said that he had been living in Fort Collins, Colo., with his youngest son and had begun searching for a job. He has recorded no income since surrendering his license to practice law in Missouri in August 2009 and was planning on filing bankruptcy, Buerkle added.

From February 2006 to August 2007, Buerkle withdrew funds from the account of the late Donald Thomasson and deposited the money into his own bank account. Buerkle claims that because of his financial condition he was unable to pay the amount back, but court documents referred to in Tuesday's hearing listed the lawyer's annual income at time as around $250,000.

"This wasn't a time that there was any reason for you to be borrowing from this trust," Witt said.

Buerkle pleaded guilty to the crime in August.

Witt said he listened carefully to Buerkle's statement before sentencing but didn't hear of the hardship he caused the victims -- daughters of Thomasson who were the beneficiaries of the account.

"Don Thomasson trusted you with his children. The things I did not hear in your statement was what you did with that trust," Witt said.

With his sentencing, Witt also denied a request from Wilson to offer 120-day shock time in jail. Buerkle was taken into custody immediately following the 70-minute hearing.

Addressing the court, Sokoloff said that while Buerkle isn't likely to reoffend, probation -- as recommended by a sentencing assessment report -- isn't a consequence that fits the crime. A separate sentencing memorandum, he added, didn't adequately address the breach of trust on Buerkle's part.

"We -- the law -- need to address that and acknowledge we take it seriously," Sokoloff said. "We have an obligation to protect the public's perception of this profession."

Sokoloff was appointed special prosecutor in the case after Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle took himself off the case in November, citing a conflict of interest. Sokoloff recommended Buerkle serve nine years in prison.

Like Buerkle's counsel, Maurice Graham, a St. Louis-based lawyer who represented Buerkle when he surrendered his law license, suggested the judge consider probation, which would allow Buerkle to pay restitution. He would owe the victims around $240,000.

Graham said he knows how remorseful Buerkle is and said he's capable of making restitution if given the opportunity to become employed in Colorado.

"It's going to be a challenge, but it's my thought that restitution isn't impossible," Graham said. "I know Joe has the legal talent to be a good paralegal in a law firm."

Lane Thomasson, the account's primary beneficiary, did not appear at the hearing. In his decision Tuesday, Witt considered statements Thomasson made at the August plea hearing.

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent Address:

44 N. Lorimier St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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