A Lake Ronkonkoma bookkeeper who admitted to stealing nearly half a million from an East Hampton family business will spend the next 30 days in jail, despite being in her last trimester of pregnancy.
Kerri Dewhirst said she was sorry for what she had done — embezzling a documented amount of $442,000 from Schenck Fuels Inc. during the two years she worked there.
At her sentencing in Suffolk County Criminal Court on Wednesday, her attorney handed over a $60,000 check from his escrow account to begin the restitution process. Free on $250,000 bail since a grand jury indictment in May 2011, she was taken away to the county jail.
As part of her plea arrangement, she agreed to pay $2,000 per month during five years of probation. If she misses even one payment, Judge James C. Hudson said he could revoke the agreement and re-sentence her to 5 to 15 years in prison.
"The well of mercy has run dry," Hudson told Dewhirst.
Rodney C. Herrlin, an owner of Schenck Fuels, was emotional as he made a statement in the courtroom, explaining that he lost faith in the judicial system — he said the process took 2 years and 4 months. Twenty adjournments later, "she is being sentenced to what I consider a joke and a slap on the wrist," he said.
Herrlin contends that the amount stolen was closer to $600,000 — the rest was in cash from the company's gas business and was not proven in court — spending it on trips to the Bahamas and Florida, a Mercedes SUV, high-end shoes, and Gucci bags.
East Hampton Village police arrested Dewhirst in March 2011. She pleaded guilty as charged to a single count indictment of second-degree grand larceny, a felony, on Oct. 10, 2011. In January of 2012, the Suffolk County District Attorney's office expected a sentence of between 1 and 6 years in prison. At the time, the agreement on the table was that if she paid $40,000 in restitution at the time of sentencing, she would received 2 to 6 years in prison, and if she paid $60,000, she would receive 1 to 3 years.
The sentence she received was "a disgrace and a mockery of the judicial system," Herrlin told the court.
Hudson said he shared Herrlin's frustrations. He acknowledged that "far more lenient" sentences are imposed to those who commit white collar crimes and are non-violent offenders. With such crowded prisons, "Ninety-eight percent of all money stolen in this country make up 1 percent the prison population," he said.
While he could have imposed a harsher sentence if she were found guilty at trial, Hudson said he felt it may be seen as "draconian" at the appellate division and overturned.
The option is for people to "pay with their purse or their person," Hudson said. In this case, Dewhirst, who lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, must pay back $180,000 in total — $120,000 over the next five years. There is a judgement of $362,000 against her.
Herrlin and his family agreed to the plea arrangement so that they could begin to recoup some of the money and move on, but Herrlin said that doesn't mean he thinks it's enough. "For such thievery, the punishment doesn't fit the severity of the crime or the damage she inflicted, not only to my family, but many others who had worked for us and lost their jobs as a result of us having to sell off businesses to survive," he said.
Schenck Fuels Inc. downsized from six businesses to three, and over 70 employees to about 40.
"Shame on us for not picking up on it sooner," he said, adding that when running a number of businesses, "You always have to trust somebody."
Herrlin accused Dewhirst of "getting pregnant to avoid prison."
Her New York City-based attorney, Joseph Dibenedetto, asked that she received medical attention at the county jail, as she has asthma and recently may have developed gestational diabetes.