BARTOW — A Lakeland woman has been sentenced to 10 years of probation after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors on charges she stole nearly $200,000 from her husband’s Lakeland company.
Julie Thompson Warren pleaded no contest Friday to forgery, uttering a forged instrument and a reduced charge of grand theft. In addition to probation, Circuit Judge Wayne Durden also imposed restitution totaling $40,000.
Warren, 58, was arrested in December 2015 on 11 felony charges, including scheme to defraud and grand theft of more than $100,000. In exchange for her plea, prosecutors dropped the remaining eight charges against her.
Investigators with the State Attorney’s Office alleged that Warren, while temporarily working as bookkeeper at Engineered Energy Equipment in Lakeland, where her husband, Kevin, was a partner, presented a fraudulent letter to Community Bank of Florida to add her name to her husband’s corporate credit card account.
Between April 2012 and October 2014, she accessed the account to purchase vacations, veterinary care, clothing, family dental expenses, travel costs and other items totaling an estimated $190,000, investigators said.
During Friday’s hearing, Warren’s estranged husband asked Durden to reject the plea agreement and consider a more stringent punishment.
“The trail of deceit, your honor, is staggering,” he said.
The theft has damaged Engineered Energy Equipment’s reputation, he said, including the company’s credit rating. He said the toll on him has been great, including losing his partnership in the business.
“Mrs. Warren’s felony behavior has reached far and wide,” he told the judge. “It has reaped the loss of friends, loss of family, loss of position, loss of possessions, loss of wage, loss of future and loss of precious time, and nearly the loss of life.”
He criticized the 10 years of probation as a “pittance of a consequence,” and asked the judge to consider “justice with substance.”
Others also have sent letters to Durden and State Attorney Brian Haas seeking a stronger sentence.
But Bartow lawyer Mark Taylor, representing Julie Warren, said he and prosecutors pored through the expenses involved with this case and linked some of them to Kevin Warren, including expensive gifts sent to friends and business associates.
“This whole case turns on whether or not he knew that she was spending (the company’s) money,” Taylor told Durden. “The biggest issue with the amount (of restitution) is because of lack of proof of who actually made these charges.”
Prosecutors said the $40,000 restitution reflects the amount that can be traced solely to Julie Warren.
Taylor said Julie Warren told investigators her husband was complicit in the spending.
According to court records, Kevin Warren said he wasn’t aware of the theft until 2014, when his business partner, Hubble Keller, discovered the credit card amid issues with the company’s bookkeeping. Warren then confronted his wife about it.
In a prepared statement Monday, Chief Assistant State Attorney Jake Orr cited some expense discrepancies that gave rise to questions regarding Kevin Warren’s involvement.
“After further investigation during the discovery process, it came to light that the amounts initially charged included money spent to benefit Mr. Warren — a trip to Anna Maria Island they both went on, a trip to the Middle East that Mr. Warren took and purchases made in Florida at a time that Mrs. Warren was not in Florida,” he said.
That, coupled with other issues, led to the plea agreement, he said.
“This case was resolved in a manner that held Mrs. Warren accountable for the funds that could be proven were spent by her without proper authority,” Orr said Monday.
Durden said he understood the frustration Kevin Warren and others were feeling, but said he has no control over the criminal charges prosecutors decide to pursue. And even though grand theft is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years, Durden said state sentencing guidelines in Warren’s case, which take into account her lack of criminal convictions, precluded him from imposing any prison time. He also explained that this case involves the state and Julie Warren, and while crime victims have a stake in the outcome of a criminal case, their involvement is limited.
“Victims just don’t get to call the shots,” Durden said. “It’s the State Attorney’s Office that gets to call the shots. They are the ones charged with prosecuting the case and seeking justice.”