A Shelburne woman linked to a major internal theft at a well-known Vermont company has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to defrauding the business before she was fired last year.
Rebecca Armell, 46, of Penny Lane, is believed to have stolen an estimated $292,000 from the Chimney Sweep Fireplace Shop since at least 2016, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Waples said in court.
Armell was the office manager for about 19 years at the Chimney Sweep, which was founded on Dorset Street in South Burlington in the 1970s. It later moved to U.S. 7 in Shelburne, and later still added a second Vermont shop in Berlin and another in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Judge Christina Reiss released Armell on conditions pending sentencing at 10 a.m. May 1 in Burlington. Reiss told Armell she could not leave Vermont, must refrain from committing new crimes and have no contact with any witnesses and victims from ,the case.
Waples said Armell, who was previously known as Rebecca Lozell, was aware for about a year that the federal prosecution was coming.
Armell agreed to cooperate once she knew she was under criminal investigation, Waples said. The head of the U.S. Secret Service for Vermont was seated with Waples at the prosecution table.
A plea deal was struck, with Armell admitting to a single felony charge of improper use of the Chimney Sweep’s credit card at Lowe’s on numerous dates before her employment was terminated in December 2018.
She signed a nine-page plea agreement and entered her guilty plea formally on Monday, Jan. 3. As part of the plea bargain, Armell agreed to a specific forfeiture notice that includes $28,000 for improper credit card purchases. However, the restitution is expected to be considerably higher, Waples said.
Defense lawyer Brooks McArthur of Burlington declined immediate comment after the hearing but said he may offer a statement after sentencing. Under questioning from the judge, Armell said she went through all 18 paragraphs with McArthur before signing the agreement.
The criminal investigation began in December 2018 with Shelburne Police determining at least $180,000 was stolen, records show.
The U.S. Secret Service was called in and the theft amount continued to grow as agents dug deeper. Investigators still do not have an exact amount but hope to before Armell is sentenced when restitution is sought.
Questioned in court
Armell said the criminal investigation has taken a toll on her.
“Anxiety has been high waiting for this to happen,” she told Reiss. Armell said she has been on anxiety medication for about eight months.
She initially told the court she was not under a doctor’s care. Under further questioning by Reiss, Armell began to identify various medications she was using for cholesterol, sleeping and birth control.
However, Reiss eventually turned to the result of a urine exam at the U.S. Probation Office before the court hearing showing Armell tested positive for soboxone, which was not prescribed for her. Reiss told Armell she can’t be taking the unprescribed drug.
Armell’s husband, her son and her parents attended the arraignment. Shelburne Town records show Armell married Robert J. Arbo, 51, in an Oct. 31 ceremony in Charlotte.
‘We will probably never know the total amount’
The investigation showed various items, including car repairs, were purchased on behalf of people associated with Armell, according to Shelburne Cpl. Jon Marcoux and Company President Roy L’Esperance.
Waples noted that auto repairs was one of four ways Armell was stealing money from the 43-year-old company.
He said Armell also wrote checks to herself and deposited them in her own account but would mask financial entries in the business accounts to make them look like loans to others.
L’Esperance told The Other Paper last month that he often provided loans to employees in need.
“We will probably never know the total amount,” L’Esperance told the newspaper as he reflected on Armell’s deception. He said the company went back only two years to determine improper expenses and charges.
He said she bought refrigerators, decks and vacuums for a residence.
Reiss said Armell could face up to 10 years behind bars, up to three years on supervised release once discharged from prison and up to a $250,000 fine. However, Armell is hoping that her cooperation will make the penalty a small fraction of it.