A Shelburne woman has been sentenced to a year and a day in prison after admitting to stealing more than $300,000.
Becky Armell, 47, worked for the Chimney Sweep Fireplace Shop for almost 20 years before she was fired in December 2018, when authorities say the owner uncovered her betrayal.
Armell, who was previously known as Rebecca Lozell, pleaded guilty to defrauding the Chimney Sweep by misusing a company credit card.
She will be under federal supervision for three years once discharged from prison, where she is to report on Oct. 13.
Judge Christina Reiss ordered Armell to make $301,957 in restitution. Reiss called the theft “pretty brazen” and told Armell restitution was important.
“It’s the only way to show the victim you are sorry,” she said.
Armell, a former bookkeeper with check-signing authority, stole the money from the family-owned business over about four years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Waples said in his sentencing memo. The loss was not covered by insurance.
The stolen money was used for gambling, cars, appliances and home repairs, records show.
Kristin L’Esperance, on behalf of the company, said in a letter to the judge the fraud caused significant financial hardship for the owners and employees. A plan by her father to sell the business fell through when the loss was uncovered.
L’Esperance wrote that the family wanted to see Armell get the maximum sentence under the law. She said it would also serve as a “strong deterrent to others who may find themselves in a trusted position and are tempted to steal from their friends and co-workers.”
Armell had written the court asking she be spared prison. She said she would be willing to serve any sentence as home confinement so she could continue to work every day.
Defense lawyer Brooks McArthur, who represented her in federal court, said he explained to Armell a non-prison sentence was not in the cards considering the theft.
McArthur, who proposed the one year and one day sentence, said he thought that would still send a message to Armell and the community, but allow her to avoid the threat of possible contact with COVID-19 at a prison during a longer sentence.
The federal sentencing guidelines had proposed a prison term of 24-30 months. The maximum penalty was 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Armell was given credit for acceptance of responsibility by confessing when first confronted by investigators and not making the government go to a grand jury to seek an indictment.
“I accept full responsibility,” Armell told the court. “I betrayed a lot of people. I’m just sorry.”
Judge Reiss noted the loss was staggering.
“It’s the kind of money that can take a company down,” Reiss said. She reminded Armell the company promoted her, and she then stole from it.
McArthur said Armell was willing to cash out a 401K account with between $32,000 and $42,000 to begin the restitution.
Reiss noted Armell appeared to be protecting others that may have benefited from the stolen money.
“You took responsibility for less-involved people. You wanted to give others things,” Reiss said. Those people could have gotten into trouble, the judge said.
Reiss imposed several terms for Armell’s supervised release, including staying out of casinos and limiting her credit cards. She must pay 10% of her monthly gross income toward restitution.
Waples wrote Armell “was totally unwilling to live a lifestyle that was anywhere near what she could afford. Importantly Armell has no dependents who will suffer from her incarceration.”
During Armell’s arraignment in January, Waples said she had stolen an estimated $292,000 from the Chimney Sweep. The final audit boosted the loss.Waples said it was a complete abuse of trust. “The real threat of incarceration is the most effective way to discourage crimes of greed,” Waples wrote in his sentencing memo.
Armell began working in 1999 at the Chimney Sweep, which was founded on Dorset Street in South Burlington in 1976 by Roy L’Esperance. It later moved to U.S. 7 in Shelburne, and subsequently added a second Vermont shop in Berlin, and a third outlet in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Armell was the office manager and was promoted to bookkeeper in 2014.
Shelburne Police began its investigation in December 2018. Cpl. Jon Marcoux determined at least $180,000 was stolen, records show. The U.S. Secret Service joined the investigation as the theft amount continued to grow as investigators dug deeper.
While the criminal investigation into her theft was underway, she got married, according to her Facebook page and Shelburne Town records. She said she was going by the name Rebecca Armell-Arbo after getting married on Halloween, 2019.
The investigation showed various items, including car repairs, were purchased on behalf of people associated with Armell, according to Shelburne Cpl. Marcoux and Company President Roy L’Esperance.
Waples noted the auto repairs were one of four ways Armell was stealing money from the 44-year-old company. Armell also misused the company credit card to benefit herself and charged personal automobile repairs to the Chimney Sweep account, records show.
The government said Armell wrote checks to petty cash that she cashed – and pocketed the proceeds. She wrote checks to herself that she deposited, falsifying entries in the company’s books to make it appear the checks had been issued to fellow employees.