With a pre-trial plea agreement looking unlikely, it will be up to a jury to decide whether Willow Creek resident Carmen Marie England stole more than $60,000 from the North Coast Journal during the 10 years she worked there as a bookkeeper.
This morning Judge Christopher Wilson arraigned England on a charge of grand theft by embezzlement, along with the special allegation that England has a prior “strike” from a manslaughter conviction 33 years ago in Oregon. Wilson also appointed the Public Defender’s Office to represent England, who can no longer afford to pay private attorney Michael Robinson.
He had represented her since May 2017.
“She lacks the financial resources to go forward,” Robinson told the judge this morning.
Judge Kelly Neel held England to answer after a preliminary hearing at which England admitted she regularly “forced” the budget to balance after being instructed to do so by Journal Publisher Judy Hodgson. She denied ever stealing any money from the Journal.
Neel said holding England to answer was a closer call than she had anticipated. She also suggested the prosecution’s case may not be as strong as believed and suggested Robinson and Deputy District Attorney Steven Steward discuss resolving it before trial.
But Robinson said this morning those negotiations failed.
“We have tried to talk about this at the suggestion of (Judge Neel),” Robinson told Wilson. “We have been unsuccessful at that and I am of course disappointed in that as an outcome.”
Outside court Robinson said he and Steward were “not even close, miles apart,” in coming to an agreement.
Steward told Wilson the district attorney’s offer in the case remains what it’s been since the beginning: The prosecution wants England to plead guilty to a single count of grand theft by embezzlement.
During closing arguments in the preliminary hearing, Steward said 95 percent of the case is appropriate for a jury to decide. That would include the issue of whether Publisher Hodgson forced England to balance the books by changing numbers, he said.
Hodgson testified during the hearing that England was the only person with access to the Journal’s financial software, but a defense-hired expert identified six people with access. It was also unclear how petty cash was handled, with England saying some Journal employees took money from the cash drawer for inappropriate reasons, and no records were made of the withdrawals.
Judge Neel noted it appeared some employees were using the cash drawer as “a piggybank.”
This morning Deputy Public Defender Luke Brownfield entered not guilty pleas on England’s behalf, saying his office would accept appointment “for now.”
Robinson noted the case is “very labor-intensive, as most paper cases are,” and the new attorney will be provided with “boxes” of evidence to consider.
Wilson scheduled a Nov. 29 hearing to discuss a possible trial date.
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- NCJ EMBEZZLEMENT CASE: Defense Attorney Claims a Dozen or More People Could Have Stolen the Newspaper’s Money, But the Accused Former Bookkeeper Did Not
- Accused Bookkeeper Takes the Stand in North Coast Journal Embezzlement Hearing
- Bookkeeper Held to Answer in North Coast Journal Embezzlement Case, But the Case May Not Make it to Trial