By Eric Francis
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – The former bookkeeper for Bentley’s and Firestones restaurants gave her teenage son a long farewell hug in the hallway of the courthouse Tuesday afternoon before admitting to embezzling over $178,000 and leaving to spend the next year behind bars at the women’s prison in Swanton.
Michele Storms, 41, of Tunbridge, said only the words “guilty” and then later “No, ma’am” after Judge Patricia Zimmerman asked if she had anything to add before Zimmerman gave Storms a 3-to-8 year sentence, all which was suspended except for one of those years, to be followed by four years of probation.
“On balance, we feel this (sentence) sends a message of general deterrence,” Windsor County Deputy State’s Attorney David Cahill explained to the court during Tuesday’s proceeding, “It says that stealing an amount of money in the six-figures is not something we take lightly.”
The Civil Division of the Superior Court in Woodstock has already handed down a default judgment against Storms for the $178,390 that the local restaurants’ parent firm, the Mountain Trading Company, discovered Storms had made off with during a four-year period.
That streak of thefts ended abruptly last June when Storms took a sick day from her position as the company’s controller and another employee, in what was intended as a effort to help Storms keep current on her workload, generated a profit report using a spreadsheet on a computer in Storms’ office. According to testimony, in glancing over the figures, the company’s Accounts Payables Manger, Allison Roth, immediately noticed that certain figures didn’t add up and eventually determined that a phantom spreadsheet cell that seemed to have no legitimate purpose was apparently covering over the removal of a couple of thousand dollars in cash deposits and making it appear as if that money had instead come from credit card receipts at the restaurants. According to Roth, it appeared that Storms had helped herself to $2,000 the previous weekend.
After initially confronting Storms upon her return to work with the discrepancies — after which she readily admitted taking the money — company officials said they were initially considering offering Storms the chance to pay that money back as a loan when they took the precautionary step of digging further back into the records to see if there were any other problems.
It was then that the full scope of the problem became apparent. A review of the books eventually found that Storms, who had worked for the company for 11 years, had started helping herself to the till in mid-2007 and each of those years since, taking nearly $64,000 in 2009 alone.
At that point Storms was fired and the Woodstock Police Department commenced an investigation that ended with the single felony embezzlement count being filed against Storms last November.
In his affidavit describing the investigation that led to Storms’ discovery and subsequent arrest, MTC Vice-President Bob Crowe wrote that Storms, who does not have a prior criminal record, told him “she was very, very sorry and that she knew it was only a matter of time before she was caught.”
Following her scheduled release from jail a year from now, Storms will be required to allow her probation officers to monitor her financial affairs and she will have to notify any employer within 48 hours of being hired of her embezzlement conviction.
This article first appeared in the March 17th print edition of the Vermont Standard.