Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Accused embezzler withdraws plea

Trial date set in Farm Bureau grand-theft case


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Judith G. Shurtz, a former secretary at the Blaine-Camas Farm Bureau office in Bellevue, withdrew her guilty plea in Blaine County 5th District Court on Monday after Judge Robert J. Elgee said he intended to impose a harsher penalty than agreed to in a binding plea agreement. Shurtz is charged with the felony crime of grand theft by embezzlement.

A former Fairfield resident withdrew her guilty plea to a felony embezzlement charge after Blaine County 5th District Judge Robert J. Elgee told her Monday that he intended to put her in prison for two years.

Sixty-year-old Judith G. Shurtz, who now lives in Owyhee County, pleaded guilty in March to grand theft by embezzlement for allegedly stealing more than $35,000 over a four-year period from the Blaine County Farm Bureau office in Bellevue where she was employed as a secretary.

The guilty plea was in accord with a "binding plea agreement" worked out between Shurtz's attorney, Dan Dolan, and the Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. According to the agreement, prosecutors could recommend at sentencing that Shurtz be sentenced to up to a year in jail. The agreement provided that she could withdraw her plea if a judge imposed a harsher penalty.

Elgee said he intended to do just that at a sentencing hearing Monday.

"I think anything less than two years in prison is just patting someone on the back and saying crime pays," Elgee said.

Dolan, who was court appointed to represent Shurtz, met with his client and members of her family in private for about 10 minutes after Elgee's statement before returning to court to inform the judge that Shurtz is now pleading not guilty. The judge then scheduled a jury trial to begin on Oct. 16.

Monday's hearing followed typical courtroom procedure for sentencing: defense and prosecution counsel briefly reviewed a pre-sentence investigation report for corrections, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Matt Fredback offered arguments for a jail sentence, Dolan offered defense arguments for a lesser sentence, and Shurtz made a statement to the court. The normal routine, however, changed when it came time for Elgee to pronounce sentence.

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"I'm telling you right now that it's going to be two years in prison," the judge said.

Shurtz was charged with embezzlement in May 2011 following a year-long investigation by the Blaine County Sheriff's Office. Detective Mark Dalton alleged in a probable-cause affidavit that Shurtz embezzled $35,288.21 from the Farm Bureau by writing checks to herself without permission from 2006 through 2010. Dalton stated that Shurtz hid the thefts by falsifying Farm Bureau records and bank statements.

Shurtz apologized for her actions at Monday's hearing, though her statements may not be admissible evidence if the case goes to trial.

"I'm sorry for the hurt that I've caused everybody," said a tearful Shurtz. "I don't know how to explain how sorry I am. I'm not a bad person and this whole thing is just killing me. I will do everything I can to make it right."

Dolan said his client did not do anything "extravagant" with the alleged stolen funds.

"Judy has struggled as a single parent most of her life to make ends meet," he said. "She understands that she has violated the trust of Farm Bureau. She's not blaming anyone, only herself."

Before Shurtz changed her plea, Dolan asked that the court sentence her to 30 days in jail with the sentence to be served in 15 two-day increments. Dolan said that sentence would allow Shurtz to keep a job she now has in Caldwell so she could begin repaying the money to the Farm Bureau.

Fredback argued that Shurtz hasn't yet paid any money back and it's unlikely that she'll do so.

"She doesn't have any money," Fredback said. "Personally, I'm skeptical that she'll be able to repay the victims. She stole a lot of money. I want her to pay the money back, but not until she's punished for it."






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