A 36-year-old bookkeeper was arrested by Petaluma police Thursday on suspicion of embezzling $262,000 from two clients.
Charity D. Howder of Santa Rosa was taken into custody during a traffic stop at Tachevah Drive and Neotomas Avenue in Santa Rosa at 2 p.m., Lt. Tim Lyons said. She was being held on $100,000 bail at the Sonoma County Jail.
Howder's arrest is the latest in a two-year run of embezzlement cases that collectively represent losses of at least $3 million from Sonoma County companies and organizations through accounting techniques and surreptitious bank withdrawals.
Two of Howder's clients jointly contacted Petaluma police in September 2011 to report they suspected she had been withdrawing thousands of dollars from their personal and business accounts, Lyons said.
The clients were Petaluma firm Project Management Practice Inc. and the family law practice of Charlotte Creaghan in Rohnert Park.
"The actions of Mrs. Howder have been shocking to us all, devastating on many levels, and frankly unbelievable for somebody we trusted so much," said Robert Happy, president and CEO of Project Management Practice Inc., in an email.
Investigators saw what they allege is a complicated fraud in which Howder used "accounting techniques to hide the expenditures," Lyons said.
A forensic accountant was contracted to analyze the evidence.
The unauthorized expenditures started small and quickly grew to an average of $2,000 to $4,000, Lyons said. They started in 2005 when Howder began doing the books for both companies and ended in September 2011 after the companies confronted her, Lyons said.
Howder remains under investigation for additional cases of theft from other clients, Lyons said.
"We are looking into at least two other companies right now," Lyons said.
Howder is the sixth Sonoma County resident accused of bilking an employer or client.
In August, John C. Sheehan, 43, of Rohnert Park was charged with embezzling $1 million from his Petaluma employer, Bibbero Systems.
Eleanor Zapanta, 51, of Guerneville was sentenced May 8 to six years in prison for embezzling $712,000 from the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa. She was ordered to repay what she stole over the six years she worked as business manager of the center.
Lidia Montano, 53, of Santa Rosa was sentenced on March 14 to one year in county jail for taking $392,000 from the Sonoma Golf Club through unauthorized raises and by paying personal bills with club accounts.
As the business manager for Kid Street Learning Center in Santa Rosa, Sheila Accornero, 42, of Cloverdale embezzled $400,000 to feed a prescription drug habit. She was sentenced March 1 to a state rehabilitation center for drug addiction.
Last year, Kyle Hoffman, 38, of Healdsburg was sentenced to nine months in jail after being convicted of embezzling $58,312 from a youth soccer league where he was president.
Anyone with information about Howder's case can call Petaluma Police Detective Joel Stemmer at 778-4372.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sonoma County Wine Auction totals
2017: $5.2 million (includes $1.8 million for Fund the Future, the youth literacy campaign)
2016: $4.7 million raised (includes $2.7 million for Fund the Future (FTF))
2015: $4.5 million raised (includes $1.9 million raised for FTF)
2014: $4 million raised (includes $700,000 includes raised for FTF)
2013: $1.4 million raised (includes $691,250 raised for FTF)
Tasting Room blog: Highlights from the Sonoma County Wine Auction