By BRANDON COUTRE –
WOODSTOCK – Kathleen Caldwell thought that she had found an easy way out when her personal finances got shaky after her two children started college.
Caldwell, who is a bookkeeper at her uncle’s Spring Grove heating and cooling business, started writing checks to herself that had totaled about $767,000 over seven years.
“Nobody knew what I was doing and nobody said anything,” Caldwell said Thursday. “I then began to justify my actions in my own mind.”
Eventually, her secret check-writing escapades unraveled when the business’ owners started receiving phone calls from the Internal Revenue Service, the company’s president said.
In November, Caldwell, 55, of Ringwood, pleaded guilty to theft, which carried a potential 15-year prison term.
But on Thursday, Caldwell bypassed prison and was sentenced to four years of probation and ordered to pay back the money she took from Mid-American Heating and Air Conditioning.
Judge Sharon Prather imposed the sentence despite prosecutors’ request for a nine-year prison term.
“She doesn’t have an alcohol issue. She doesn’t have a drug issue. She doesn’t have a gambling problem. She did it because it was easy,” said McHenry County Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Kelly. “To grant Mrs. Caldwell probation, despite this being her first conviction, would deprecate this particular offense.”
During the sentencing hearing, Caldwell’s two adult children and her husband portrayed her as a loving mother, wife and grandmother.
“I have to say you are not the usual type of defendant that I see in this courtroom,” Prather said. “You have a loving and supporting family.”
Prather, who called the crime “mind boggling,” said Caldwell is unlikely to repeat the crime and had no criminal background.
“I simply cannot understand why or how you could do this to yourself, your family and employer,” Prather said. “You violated your trust in every person that had faith in you.”
To pay back the money, Caldwell’s husband testified that the family is liquidating nearly all of its assets, including retirement savings.
Caldwell will be required to pay $400,000 to the company within 21 days. In addition, she will be required to pay $3,000 a month and annual $35,000 payments, starting in 2008.
“This is one of those cases where we can do something about it and the victim could become whole,” said George Kililis, Caldwell’s attorney. “They are willing to put everything on the line. His retirement, his investments, everything he saved is gone.”
Although her family appeared to have figured out how to pay, Prather ordered Caldwell to seek full-time employment.
“I don’t care if you work at a fast food place or a factory, but ma’am, you’re going to get a job and you’re going to pay your share,” Prather said.
Caldwell expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness before receiving her sentence.
Caldwell’s uncle, Terry Amore, has since left the company because of stress from the theft, said Carl Cullotta, who is now president.
“I’m not really satisfied with the way it turned out,” Cullotta said of the sentence.
The embezzlement scheme has tarnished the business and nearly sent it into financial ruin, he said.
“In order to make up for that shortfall, my partner and I would have to take money out of our own pockets to keep the doors open, and we’re not talking about small amounts of money,” Cullotta said.