It Takes a Thief: Women Who Steal Money
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It Takes a Thief: Women Who Steal Money

They're devoted wives, loving parents, and caring members of the community. They're stealing at the office, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. What makes them do it?

The Temptation to Steal

Fun-loving Kristy Linn Cardina seemed an unlikely woman to be harboring a dark secret. She appeared to be a contented wife and mother who worked as an administrative assistant and bookkeeper at Marsh, Berry and Co., financial consultants to the insurance industry in Concord Township, Ohio. She and husband David, who worked at a construction company, lived in her childhood home with children Melissa, 8, and Stephen, 6. After Cardina's parents moved to Florida, the couple had taken over the house and the mortgage. They were fixing it up, because Cardina liked everything to be perfect.

"If you saw them on the street, they looked like a typical family," says Debbie Bailey, who was Cardina's best friend and met her regularly for dinner and chick flicks. With a combined salary of around $80,000, the Cardinas' lifestyle was more modest than that of Kristy's upper-middle-class youth. Still, friends and coworkers sometimes wondered about her spending. She and Melissa had countless outfits; she didn't buy one computer game at a time but 10; and she stocked her kitchen with expensive dinnerware and serving pieces. When she wasn't shopping, Cardina read Harlequin Romance books; she said she only liked happy endings.

Unfortunately for Cardina, she's now serving a seven-year prison sentence at the Trumbull Correctional Institution, in Leavittsburg, Ohio, after pleading guilty in 2001 to aggravated theft, tampering with records, and forgery. During most of her tenure at Marsh, Berry, which began in 1992, she had doctored the books, cashed and forged company checks for personal use, and paid her credit card bills -- amounting to some $233,000 -- with company funds. "I started out thinking, 'I'll just do it this one time,'" says Cardina, 38. "After that, it was easy to keep going."

But her sins gnawed at her: She spent nights lying awake, sick with panic, until her employer discovered the theft and fired her in 1999. She confessed to detectives the following year but couldn't bring herself to tell her husband, now 43, until the story broke in the local newspapers in the spring of 2001. Cardina told him she would understand if he walked away. He didn't. "He just said, 'I love you, and we'll get through this,'" she says.

Rising Numbers of Female Embezzlers

Every year, thousands of seemingly upstanding women like Cardina betray their bosses by stealing, anywhere from a few thousand dollars up into the millions. Nationwide, arrests of female embezzlers rose 42 percent between 1994 and 2003, compared with 2 percent for men, according to the FBI, while forgery and counterfeiting arrests for the same period rose 10.5 percent for women and were down 4 percent for men.

Authorities attribute the rise to the facts that more women are in high-powered positions, more of them have to support families alone, and more businesses are reporting the crimes. The women themselves offer all manner of motives. Some want to pay off gambling debts. Some are shopping addicts who fritter their stolen riches away. Some may bear a grudge against their bosses and seek retribution.

"These women have often been employed by an organization for a while, and because of low pay, a missed promotion, or bonus that was withheld they feel they're owed something," says Rachel Hutzel, a prosecutor in Warren County, Ohio. "They're going to commit theft in a way that requires deception, painstaking attention to detail, careful planning, patience. They have to be fairly intelligent women."

Clinical psychologist Helen Grusd, PhD, a former president of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association who has counseled convicted embezzlers, says it's important to differentiate between habitual thieves, unashamed of their crimes, and those for whom embezzlement is an aberration. "A lot of women are shocked by their own behavior, almost as if another being in their psyche has come out," she says.

Why Do Women Steal?

Cardina says her crime partially stemmed from growing up in a competitive family in which she felt she never measured up. Among her gripes was the fact that her father took great pride in beating her and her siblings at tennis, while her mother apparently lavished all her praise on Cardina's older siblings. Cardina was a college dropout, while her sister and two brothers became banking professionals. After landing her job at Marsh, Berry, she quelled her feelings of inferiority by giving her family expensive birthday and holiday presents. "Everything was about me," Cardina says. "If I'd been thinking about my husband and kids, I wouldn't have stolen."

Assistant District Attorney Charles L. Callear, an experienced fraud prosecutor in Monroe County, New York, says that embezzlers are often conscientious, hardworking employees. "If they weren't, they wouldn't get the jobs," he says, adding that they are often reluctant to take time off "because they have to be at work to keep the cover-up going." Cardina fit the profile: She eagerly put in extra hours at Marsh, Berry, and it was on one of her rare vacation days that Larry Marsh opened a letter from the IRS alerting him about unpaid payroll taxes. It turned out that Cardina, who handled the firm's mail, had failed to pay the IRS hundreds of thousands of dollars and managed to hide 11 prior notices as a way of concealing the money she had stolen. "It was so easy to trust her," says Marsh, who has known Cardina and her parents since she was a child.

Embezzlement, of course, isn't merely a crime involving money: The breach of trust is enormous, and the emotional ripple extends to stunned husbands and children, victims, and fellow workers. And some businesses barely survive. In 2003, the Helen Beebe Speech and Hearing Center, a Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, nonprofit group dedicated to teaching deaf children to communicate, was forced to end its therapy programs after finance manager Leigh Urbanski, then 33, stole $124,000. She reportedly also embezzled $65,000 from her volunteer job as treasurer for a kids' football association on which her own young sons played. In January, Urbanski, who couldn't explain her crimes, pleaded guilty to stealing $9,800 from a previous employer, Jomar Textiles, and was sentenced to nine to 23 months to run concurrently with the one-and-a-half to four years she received in the other cases.

A similar case of preying upon the innocent is that of Diana Kembel. In 1999, when she went to work as secretary and treasurer at the Mason United Methodist Church, in Ohio, she was a 42-year-old mother of two with a husband employed by a large corporation and was active and well liked in her prosperous community. Over two years she embezzled more than $200,000 of church funds and spent it on furniture, a top-of-the-line washer and dryer, computers and cell phones for the family, and thousands of dollars' worth of food and uniforms for her son's high school marching band. "She was doing it to feel like a big shot," says prosecutor Hutzel. "Call it keeping up with the Joneses." In September 2002, Kembel was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay $222,000 in restitution as well as a $10,000 court fine.

Prison terms for embezzlement vary among states and vary even within a given state. Because Kembel was able to make restitution with funds from her husband's 401(k) plan, she served only seven months. Cardina, who has no such resources, will likely have to serve her full sentence. Sometimes prosecutors appeal if they believe a punishment is too lenient, as was the case involving a Chicago woman who received probation after her lawyer argued that chronic depression led her to embezzle more than $240,000 from her consulting firm to pay for shopping sprees at Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus. An appeals court later sentenced her to a minimum one-year sentence.

One argument for shorter sentences is that embezzlers can work once they're released, enabling them to repay their victims more quickly. And there are no indications that lengthy sentences promote rehabilitation. On the other hand, studies indicate that recidivism rates are high; a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, released in 2002, showed that 66 percent of fraud offenders were rearrested within three years.

A Habitual Criminal

One such case is that of habitual criminal Marcia Snively, of Monroe, Ohio. With a 26-month prison term behind her for embezzling from both a school athletic fund and a law firm where she worked, Snively was suspected of embezzling $95,000 from the nonprofit Warren County Foundation, which neglected to run a background check before hiring her in 2001. While being investigated for that crime, Snively, then 41, landed yet another job at a building company in Dayton by forging a letter of recommendation -- complete with signatures from her probation officer and sentencing judge -- as well as a forged court document saying all charges against her had been dismissed. Last year, Snively, whose fake reference was eventually discovered by the building company, pleaded guilty to forgery and grand theft charges and is now serving an eight-year sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, in Marysville. "If they gave her access to a computer," says assistant prosecutor Lee Oldendick, "she'd be running a scam out of Marysville."

Larry Marsh still wonders why Kristy Cardina wasted her intelligence on an embezzlement scheme rather than earning a degree that would have helped her climb the corporate ladder. "In a way, she had it all. There was nothing she couldn't do if she put her mind to it," he says. Cardina, who admits she spent her brief time at college partying instead of studying, bristles at Marsh's assessment. "Other than the fact that I'm in prison, I was very successful for someone who had only a high school education," she says, without a trace of irony.

Her family is coping as well as can be expected. David Cardina, who had to vacate Kristy's parents' house, has moved in with his own parents in Painesville, Ohio, along with Melissa, now 13, and Stephen, 11. Despite being diagnosed at age 4 with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, Stephen does understand what happened. "Mommy broke the rules, so she had to go to jail," he says matter-of-factly. But occasionally, says David, "I'll walk into a room and find one of them crying uncontrollably, saying, 'I miss Mom. When's she coming home?'" Still, he says, "I'm thankful I married Kristy. I love her, for better or for worse." Deep down, Kristy knows it has been for the worse. "There was no real reason to do what I did," she says. "And the only thing I've got to show for it is grief for me, my family, and my victims."

Beauty and the Bank Robbers

When it comes to stealing money, perhaps the most brazen of women are those who grab the money and run -- Bonnie and Clyde style. In July 2003, Margaret Ann Thomas-Irving, 57, hopped a flight from her home in Hartford, Connecticut, to Lansing, Michigan, ostensibly to see her son and pick up her 9-year-old grandson for a visit. Instead, she rented a car and replaced the license plate with a stolen one. Wearing a wig and straw hat and wielding what appeared to be a gun, she held up two banks, making off with nearly $2,800. "I have explosives," her demand note read. "If anything goes wrong, it's curtains for us all."

Instead, it was curtains for Thomas-Irving, who was arrested that day -- the end of a 10-month spree in which she walked away with some $16,000. Depression had left her unable to work at her family-run customer-relations business, and when she and her ailing husband were threatened with foreclosure, she was desperate to pay the $1,075 mortgage on her home. Authorities were never able to prove she carried a weapon, but after pleading guilty to 12 robberies of banks and other businesses, she is serving a five-year, 10-month sentence at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. "Even I can't imagine me doing it, though I know I did," she says, her voice breaking. "As things started going downhill, it just turned into what seemed an impossible situation."

Thomas-Irving may not be as unusual as she seems. Official FBI statistics may not reflect true numbers of female involvement in bank robberies, since the bureau admits that in the wake of September 11, ferreting out terrorists has taken precedence. "If it's a bank robbery, we just don't give it the same resources as we once did," says Michael MacLean, bank robbery program manager at FBI headquarters, in Washington, D.C. "We're hoping it doesn't lead to an even bigger increase."

The amusing nicknames bestowed on the women they pursue add a caper-like edge to their crimes. There's "Tweety Bird" bank robber Teresa Baird, 40, a fifth-grade teacher in Flint, Michigan, whose nickname came from the design on her baseball cap; she pleaded no contest last year to one count of bank robbery. There's also "Bag Lady Bandit" Mary Ann Brown, 35, who carried a SpongeBob SquarePants bag and took her 9-year-old daughter to one of the four Seattle bank robberies to which she pleaded guilty this year.

"We're not trying to minimize the crime or glamorize it," says FBI spokesperson Robbie Burroughs, explaining that colorful names draw media and public attention to the robbers. "It's a way for us to catch them."

The true reasons underlying these robberies remain a mystery to the women who commit them and to those who know them. Prosecutor Lloyd Meyer, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, remains puzzled by Thomas-Irving's actions. "We all have financial difficulties," he says. "But the majority of citizens find other ways of dealing with them than acting like John Dillinger."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, November 2005.