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Deborah Lynn Shifflett, 39, entered no contest pleas Tuesday in Bedford County Circuit Court to 10 felony embezzlement charges.
A no contest plea, which has the same effect as a guilty plea, means that she did not contest the evidence against her, knowing that she will be found guilty if the court accepts the evidence, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz. In essence it means that she admits there is enough evidence to convict her.
The money was embezzled from the Hardy Volunteer Fire Department. Shifflett’s late husband, Jeffrey Lee Shifflett, had served as that fire department’s chief for 20 years. According to Krantz, at some point Shifflett came to have sole control of the fire department’s finances and used that to embezzle between $250,000 and $300,000. This included draining an account earmarked for buying new fire trucks.
Krantz said that the embezzlement came to light when the department’s treasurer noticed that there was an unusual amount of gas purchases being charged to the credit cards for equipment that wasn’t being run very often. This discovery led to a state police investigation which, in turn, led to embezzlement charges against Shifflett, his wife and their son, Cory.
Jeffrey Lee Shifflett committed suicide shortly after being charged. Cory Shifflett pleaded guilty to seven counts of felony embezzlement late last year and Krantz said that he has been cooperating in the prosecution of his mother.
“Jeffrey Shifflett and Deborah Shifflett used the Hardy Fire Department as their personal piggy bank,” Krantz said.
Krantz said that evidence shows that Deborah Shifflett gassed up her car on a fire department credit card and bought personal clothing at Gander Mountain. She also, shortly after her husband’s suicide, transfered title to vehicles, purchased with embezzled funds, to her name. Krantz said that she forged her husband’s name on documents to do this. As part of the agreement that led to the no contest pleas, Deborah Shifflett has relinquished title to those big ticket items to the Hardy Volunteer Fire Department and Krantz said that the department stands to recover thousands of dollars from selling these items.
Krantz said that they include a tractor and farm equipment. There were items that required a truck to haul off when state police seized them. The agreement also puts a $10,000 cap on her cash restitution responsibility and Krantz and her attorney, Webster Hogeland, have the task ahead of them to sift through credit card charges to determine which purchases Deborah Shifflett made and which of those were made by her husband. Hogeland claimed that all the Gander Mountain charges were her husband’s doing, while Krantz disputes that.
“The evidence is that she bought groceries, personal clothing, gas and other personal items,” Krantz said.
He said that family members saw her use a fire department credit card to buy personal items.
A restitution hearing will be held if there are any items on which the Commonwealth and defense do not agree.
“Obviously, this is a case of breach of trust,” Hogeland said, stating that his client’s husband got her caught up in his theft.
Hogeland said that Deborah Shifflett entered the pleas because she wanted to bring it to a conclusion and take responsibility for the charges she made. He also said that she was astounded by the magnitude of her husband’s embezzlement. Krantz disputes this. He said that it would have taken willful blindness on her part not to have known. Krantz said that, when Jeffrey Shifflett bought items, his wife had criminal intent by going along with the purchases.
Hogeland also said that Shifflett wanted to be sure that no charges were made against other family members, adding that Jeffrey Shifflett left other family members to take responsibility when he committed suicide.
“When Mr. Shifflett committed suicide, he left his wife and his son holding the legal bag,” he said.
In addition to the 10 charges to which Shifflett pleaded no contest, there are three others which the Commonwealth has continued, pending a sentencing hearing. Krantz said that this is to ensure that Deborah Shifflett does not withdraw her pleas, something that she can still do. Krantz also said that there are additional charges that they can bring against her, including a forgery charge, should she withdraw the pleas.
Embezzlement of more than $200 is grand larceny. Krantz said that the commonwealth could have combined Shifflett’s credit card purchases in ways that would have resulted in a large number of separate charges.
But that would have been impractical and they chose a route that led to 13 charges. Krantz said this ensured that, should the judge throw out one charge, others would remain. The 13 counts cover credit card purchases over a 13 month period.
The $10,000 restitution cap is significant. Krantz said that embezzlement carries a sentence of between one and 20 years for each count. However the state’s sentencing guidelines call for probation, rather than time behind bars for a person with no criminal record. Deborah Shifflett has no criminal record.
Krantz said that two issues change that, the number of counts and the amount of money stolen. The $10,000 amount is the point that takes the guidelines from recommending probation, to recommending jail time.
Krantz would like to see Deborah Shifflett spend time behind bars, but said that he needs to balance that with the need to see that the fire department gets as much of its money back as possible. He notes that “you can’t get blood from a turnip.”
He expects a period of between 13 and 15 weeks to pass before Deborah Shifflett has a sentencing hearing. This is due to the complexity of working through the credit card transactions to determine those for which she is responsible.
Meanwhile, Deborah Shifflett remains free on bond. Her son, Cory Shifflett also remains free. Krantz said that he won’t be sentenced until after the case against his mother is complete.
“He very quickly came forward and took responsibility,” Krantz said.