A bookkeeper who embezzled nearly a half-million dollars, causing longtime employees to lose their jobs and forcing pay reductions for others, will spend 2½ years behind bars for thefts a judge said “devastated and ravaged” a 60-year-old Chesterfield County business.
Melissa Morris, 45, had been “pulling the company down for years and years and years” by systematically siphoning company money as its president, who died of cancer in March 2014, tried desperately to hold the business together while battling his illness, Chesterfield prosecutor Robert J. Fierro Jr. told the court during a sentencing hearing Tuesday.
Over a period of at least eight years, Morris digitally altered the company’s bank statements while writing hundreds of checks on the company’s account to herself and her creditors, stealing at least $464,764 since 2006, according to evidence.
As Industrial Machine Manufacturing Inc. struggled to stay afloat — laying off five employees with 25 to 30 years of service and cutting the salaries of those who remained by 14 percent — Morris used some of the stolen proceeds for vacation trips and a $5,824 payment to Mattress Warehouse.
But authorities still cannot account for where the bulk of the money went, which Chesterfield Circuit Judge T.J. Hauler found suspicious.
“I can’t believe she’s squandered nearly a half-million dollars,” Hauler said, adding, “I think she’s sitting on it somewhere.”
Morris’ attorney told the court that his client and her husband, a Fort Lee firefighter, essentially are broke and urged that she be placed on electronic home incarceration so she can continue to care for the couple’s two children.
Morris and her husband had a collective annual income of about $115,000, with Morris receiving $40,000 as the company’s bookkeeper and her husband earning $75,000.
After Morris apologized to her family and the company’s employees Tuesday, Hauler sentenced her to 50 years in prison on five embezzlement counts with all but five years suspended. But the judge then stayed execution of 2½ of those years, leaving her with 2½ years to serve.
State sentencing guidelines called for Morris to serve an active sentence of two years on the low end to five years on the high end.
The judge also ordered Morris to make restitution to the company for the full amount, and to make minimum monthly payments of $250 beginning 30 days after she is released.
Attorney Joseph Carrington, who was designated executor of the estate of deceased company President Marvin Garrett, testified how he found his friend’s business in financial shambles after hiring an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit.
Morris abruptly resigned May 2, 2014, and “cleaned out a lot of files” after failing repeatedly to respond to Carrington’s inquires about the company’s finances, Carrington said.
Fierro said Morris then sold her family’s home and left town, prompting Carrington to hire a private detective to learn where she moved.
Carrington said the forensic audit showed Morris had doctored back bank statements to make it appear the company had more cash on hand than it did, and “she even continued to steal after Mr. Garrett died.”
Garrett, who had been with the business for 50 of its nearly 60 years, had purchased it with a partner in 1984 and regarded his 13 employees as family, according to testimony.
But Morris’ theft slowly but malevolently took its toll, causing Garrett to cancel a profit-sharing plan, lay off five employees, and issue 14 percent pay cuts to others. The pay was restored in early 2014, but hours had to be reduced from 40 to 32 a week.
Fierro said that Morris was believed by all to be a trusted employee and that by manipulating the books and otherwise controlling the financial information regularly provided to Garrett, as well as to the company’s accountants and tax preparers, she successfully concealed her theft for an extended period.
“He did what he needed to do to keep the company going,” testified Danny St. John, a 39-year employee who was appointed shop manager after the company was recently sold to new owners. “He was like a dad to me. We were just like family.”