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Men commit more crime than women but there's one category where women hold the distinction – embezzlement.

In a national trend that is playing out in series of Sonoma County cases, women are more often arrested on charges of stealing from employers, churches or community organizations.

Their dominance is likely a result of the positions they occupy such as bookkeepers and bank tellers that allow greater access to financial records, checking accounts and cash, experts say.

And a perception that women are more trustworthy than men may lead to even more opportunity to misappropriate funds, said Richard Scott, a Santa Rosa lawyer specializing in embezzlement defense.

"I don't think it's that the morals of men are any better," said Scott, whose clients have been women in 13 of 15 cases involving thefts of $100,000 or more. "It's just that they are in jobs where they handle money."

Local authorities said that appears to be the situation in a number of embezzlement cases this year each involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The latest struck the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa, where business manager Eleanor Zapanta, 51 of Guerneville, is accused of taking more than $712,000 over a seven-year period.

Zapanta was arrested in September and charged with writing more than 250 unauthorized checks in amounts ranging from about $100 to nearly $13,000 each. If convicted, she faces up to 12 years in prison.

Also last month, Lake County authorities charged bookkeeper Tracey Avila, 50, of embezzling $61,000 from the Elem Band of Pomo Indians. She is accused of giving herself unauthorized pay raises, unauthorized benefits and taking advances without paying them back from 2006 to 2008.

A month earlier, police arrested Sheila Accornero, 42, then the finance manager of Kids Street Learning Center charter school in Santa Rosa, on charges she embezzled nearly $400,000. The Cloverdale woman is accused of forging the principal's name on checks to herself over a 2.5-year period. Her credit union became suspicious of her account and reported it to authorities, police said.

Earlier this year, in March, an Exchange Bank administrative assistant pleaded no contest to embezzling $215,000 from an internal account used for promotions and employee incentives. Vanessa Outlaw, 31, was expected to get a three-year prison sentence.

A month after that case was resolved, a Windsor woman was found guilty of embezzling more than $100,000 from the small Healdsburg law firm where she worked. A judge sentenced April Hale, 39, to a year in jail.

The arrests fall in line with national FBI statistics that show more than half of all embezzlement suspects are women. Statistics from the Santa Rosa Police Department showed seven of 10 people arrested for embezzlement in 2009 were women. Countywide figures were not available.

Criminologists believe access is the leading reason behind why women embezzle.

Darrell Steffensmeier, sociology professor at Penn State University and crime and gender researcher said three-quarters of all jobs involving financial reporting and banking are held by women.

Eventually, their work is audited and they are caught.

"They're in high-visibility, high-surveillance positions that are highly monitored," Steffensmeier said.

Others said women don't turn to violent crime because they are at a physical disadvantage. And they're not likely to pick up a gun and try to rob a bank.

Rita Simon, an American University professor who co-wrote the book, "The Crimes Women Commit: The Punishment They Receive," said women get jobs handling cash instead and exploit opportunities.

"As more women enter the labor force they get skills that allow them to commit crime," Simon said. "If you're a housewife, you don't know how to embezzle."

Other experts believe women clerks and office managers who steal may be motivated by a sense of frustration that they are being held back from promotion because of their gender.

They turn to embezzlement as a way to compensate for the unfairness, said Donald Rebovich, professor of criminal justice at Utica College in New York and National White-Collar Crime Center researcher.

They get away with it for so long because they are trusted, he said.

"They've gotten into a position where no one's watching and they've taken advantage of it," Rebovich said.

Linda Grounds, a forensic psychologist in Oregon who has launched a study on women who embezzle, said single mothers might be trying to raise money to support a family or they may be in abusive relationships where men are forcing them to steal.

They also might have gambling or drug addictions or be trying to raise money to pay for compulsive behavior like shopping, she said.

"They are in low-level jobs," Grounds said. "Maybe they need a lot of stuff to make them feel good." In any case, women are doing it. FBI statistics indicate embezzlement is one of only two crime categories led by women. The other is prostitution.

Santa Rosa attorney Chris Andrian, who also practices embezzlement defense, said it's become the women's counterpoint to domestic violence – a male-dominated crime. His embezzlement clients are 5 to 1 women, he said.

"They're the trusted secretary, the trusted office manager," Andrian said. "Women wind up in these positions."