In a highly publicized case of betrayal that took unexpected turns – the repeated misappropriation of funds from a school nonprofit made public in February, a plea bargain that included a $25,000 restitution payment rejected by a judge in May – the end was as compelling as the beginning.
This time, 34-year-old Amy Grigsby Dodson of Sperryville did not expect to report to jail after her hearing. The former Rappahannock County School Sports Association (RCSSA) treasurer, with her attorney, Douglas Baumgardner, arrived at Rappahannock County Circuit Court Tuesday (May 22) planning to withdraw her pleas of guilty and request that the case be heard by another judge – which was her right, since Judge Jeffrey W. Parker last week rejected the agreement worked out by Baumgardner and Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff.
Baumgardner told Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne Tuesday morning that his client hoped to present on June 8 another plea agreement similar to one rejected without comment by Parker, but with an added community service component.
Horne, however, suggested the new agreement be typed up and presented to him, since he was in fact new to the case.
Three hours later, after arguments by both parties and an emotional statement by Dodson herself, Horne accepted the deal: Dodson was sentenced to 60 days in the Rappahannock County Jail for misdemeanor embezzlement, with a total of 10 years of suspended prison time for seven felony embezzlement charges, and asked to pay $25,000 in restitution.
Horne denied Baumgardner’s request to allow Dodson to report to the jail Wednesday morning, and Sheriff’s Deputy Gary Jenkins led the sobbing woman out of the courtroom and into custody. With good behavior, she can be released June 22. Upon release, she will have three years of supervised probation and 100 hours of community service to be performed within six months (a special condition added to the plea agreement originally rejected by Parker).
The eight embezzlement charges against Dodson stemmed from a Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office investigation that began Feb. 6, when former RCSSA president Amy Hitt called the sheriff to report money missing from the nonprofit youth sports organization’s accounts at Union First Market Bank in Washington; their $15,000 credit line had also been maxed out, she said. The unauthorized purchases were reportedly made between October 2011 and February 2012.
According to a search warrant affidavit filed in February, among the “unauthorized purchases” listed on the RCSSA account: “Microsoft X-Box Live, Rappahannock Electric, Sprint Wireless, Verizon, Apple iTunes, Bill Turner Inc., Kings Dominion Web, Shaw’s Services, Wal-Mart, Sheetz, Shell Oil, McDonalds, Chipotle, Hillsdale, Newspaper Direct, Rose Hill Vet, Martin’s, Petco, Warrenton Florist, Los Portillos, Fandango, Rhapsody, Aarons online payment, Surfside Motel in Nags Head, N.C., Front Royal Co Op, Kmart, Bloom, Stubhub and Kubraezpayfee.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Dodson made her first public statement about the case, after the attorneys had presented their case for the plea agreement to Horne. She cleared her throat and read from a sheet of paper.
“Embarrassed, humiliated, remorseful and sad – those are the emotions I feel right now. I have let down my peers, my community, my family and friends,” Dodson said, through tears. She said that in August 2010 she became the concessions manager, was a dedicated volunteer and helped raise funds. In July 2011, she became the treasurer because no one else on the board wanted to do it, and said that then-RCSSA president Amy Hitt was too busy to take on the task. Shortly afterward, Dodson said she became an assistant cheerleading head coach and a substitute teacher at the high school. She said that in February, her world came crashing down – that she had humiliated herself, her husband, children, family and friends.
On April 13, she said, “I tried to take my own life . . .” She broke down into sobs for more than a minute before continuing. “Because the embarrassment I felt was overwhelming.” She said when the charges emerged, she was prescribed medication to combat anxiety and depression. “My children were repeatedly singled out at school for the crime I committed, so I made the decision. I only wanted the people I loved to be okay, and had no concern for myself. I figured that if I took my own life, they may be able to move on.”
Earlier in the hearing, when Horne took the bench after a 90-minute recess and another half hour of study in his chambers, he said he’d reviewed several victim impact letters, letters of character from Dodson’s family and friends and a resolution passed by RCSSA’s board. Baumgardner told Horne that Dodson had been arraigned and pleaded guilty to eight embezzlement charges March 12 as part of a plea agreement with Goff. He said Parker rejected the agreement even though there was “no hearing, no witnesses and no arguments made – and it was rejected with no explanation.”
Goff told Horne that this case was an unfortunate matter in which Dodson confessed to embezzling from RCSSA, that the prosecution could prove she took $17,538, based on an investigation by Sheriff’s Office Capt. J.C. Welch. They could not prove, he added, exactly how much cash was taken from the registers after athletics events.
The commonwealth’s attorney also defended the agreement.
“Your honor, it is rare in an embezzlement case to have this large a restitution offered up front,” Goff said, noting that the $25,000 was ready to transfer to RCSSA. Goff told Horne that the RCSSA’s coffers are empty, and that they have a debt to repay, since Dodson used the nonprofit’s line of credit to mask her unauthorized purchases using RCSSA funds. Goff said that this plea agreement immediately puts more money than can be proven was taken into the hands of the RCSSA.
Goff told Horne that when the terms of the plea agreement were being defined, he involved Dodson, Baumgardner, RCSSA board members (including current president Amy Burnett), Welch, Sheriff Connie C. Smith and former Commonwealth’s Attorney Peter Luke in the discussions – which allowed all parties to flesh out a proper deal. Goff said he gave the RCSSA board the option to go for a “more traditional approach,” which would involve possible prison time and setting an agreed-upon restitution, and that they decided against that.
“It seemed like a very good deal to me, since the money would be returned to the organization, more money than we can even prove was taken,” Goff told Horne, noting that in most cases, collecting restitution is difficult and can take years. The prosecutor added that he discussed with the sheriff “at what point is there a diminishing return on incarceration,” and that Smith told him that after about 30 days, inmates have adjusted to their incarceration and its punishment value diminishes. “I don’t think prison is appropriate for this lady; I think this is the right thing to do. It is a practical solution,” he said, noting that the up-front restitution had a major effect on the terms of the agreement.
“The RCSSA is a nonprofit for the benefit of the school children,” Goff told Horne. “I want the money to get back to the kids, and that had a bearing on my sentencing recommendation.”
Baumgardner next told Horne that Dodson is not a woman who is well-off financially, so it was a struggle to raise the $25,000 for the restitution. He said she went to family members and got some of them to contribute, which required an extraordinary effort. Baumgardner told Horne that Dodson is extremely remorseful, aware and cognizant of the damage she’s caused, noting that the recommended punishment falls squarely within the guidelines, though below the midpoint. “Ms. Dodson’s response to her wrongdoing in this case is one of the better ones I’ve seen in my years practicing law.”
Baumgardner asked Horne to allow Dodson one day to get her affairs in order before reporting to jail, “because my client came here today under the pretext of this being a plea hearing.”
Horne quickly responded that, “If I decide to accept this plea, she’ll go to jail today. She’ll walk right out of here and over to the Sheriff’s Office immediately after this.”
Dodson stood before Horne, both hands behind her back, the right hand clutching a wad of tissues.
“So Ms. Burnett can walk across the street and get this check today?” Horne asked, acknowledging the RCSSA president in the courtroom. He noted that 100 hours of community service was added as a special condition of Dodson’s probation, and that the 60-day jail sentence falls within the sentencing guidelines.
“Quite frankly, it is compelling to see a compassionate Commonwealth’s Attorney that actually sat down with the victims, the defendant and members of the community to attempt to reach a conclusion that could best restore the victims to whole. That speaks very highly of the job that Mr. Goff is doing here,” Horne said, adding that the victim impact statements were also compelling. He noted that it’s difficult to sentence someone who’s hurt people that serve the community as volunteers. Horne said in his nearly 30 years as a circuit court judge in Loudoun County, he’s presided over a number of similar cases and that such instances of what he called “leaching” are likely to increase if the economy worsens.
Most embezzlement cases, Horne said, are the result of “pure unadulterated greed, and I think this is a perfect example of that. The tough thing to overcome, Ms. Dodson, is that’s the way people will perceive you, and have perceived you, since the day all this was discovered – and I don’t blame them . . . How you overcome the community’s perception, and how people perceive you, is really up to you now. We can send you to jail, we can fine you and put you on probation, but it is on you whether or not to restore your image in this community.”
After what Baumgardner described as a fair outcome – though the timing was somewhat unexpected – he agreed with Horne’s statements about Goff’s intimate involvement in finding an agreeable outcome to restore the RCSSA.
“And I’m not saying that from a defense lawyer’s perspective; as a citizen of the county, I have found [Goff] to be very attentive to his cases, and interested in doing justice, and he’s aggressive where the situation calls for him to be aggressive, and he’s willing to listen when the situation calls for listening – and I think the county’s being well served by him,” Baumgardner said Wednesday, then addressed his client. “Having dealt with Amy quite a bit with these cases. I believe she’s learned a lesson, and I would anticipate that she’ll be making a positive contribution to the county as the years unfold.”
“I’d like to thank Art Goff and the RCSO, namely J.C. Welch and Connie Smith, for their diligent work in helping to bring this case to closure,” Burnett said. “RCSSA is moving forward with a strong group of committed and talented parents, and we’re excited about the coming months.”
A few minutes after Dodson was led out of court, Burnett stood across the street, holding a green $25,000 check made out to RCSSA.
Scheduled to stand trial Tuesday, 59-year-old Michael Lawrence Nelson of Boston instead pleaded guilty to assault and battery on a law enforcement officer and obstruction of justice through threat or force. Nelson has been held at the county jail since November, and will be sentenced on the charges Aug. 2.
According to Goff’s evidence summary: On Nov. 23 at a residence in Boston, Deputy Shawn Walters was summoned to a domestic dispute. When he arrived, Goff said, members of Nelson’s family told Walters that Nelson had been drinking all day. Walters walked to a back bedroom where Nelson was on the bed, the prosecutor continued, at which point the man became verbally combative, cursing and making threats on Walters’ life. While being cuffed, Goff said, Nelson managed to get free enough to kick the deputy in the groin. When Deputy Robbie Fincham tried to subdue Nelson, Fincham was scratched badly on the hand – all of this was accompanied by death threats on the officers, Goff said.
Thirty-nine-year-old Melissa Ann Wright pleaded guilty to grand larceny and will be sentenced Aug. 16. Goff’s summary disclosed that Wright was employed in November by Hunters Road resident John Bourgeois as a house cleaner and allowed access to the kitchen and dining area. Bourgeois had a collection of sterling silver forks and knives, Goff said, and Wright stole about 30 pieces of that. She sold the stolen silverware to Triple Image in Culpeper and received about $1,300, the prosecutor said. When investigator Welch confronted her, Goff said, Wright gave a written statement that she stole 20 to 30 pieces of silverware at around Thanksgiving.