A Cloverdale woman who embezzled nearly $400,000 from a Santa Rosa charter school to support what she described as a $1,000 a day prescription pill habit was sentenced Thursday to more than four years in a state rehabilitation prison.
Sheila Accornero, 43, the former business manager at the nonprofit Kid Street Learning Center, was arrested in August after police uncovered the three-year scheme.
Prosecutors said Accornero forged Principal Linda Conklin's name on hundreds of checks and deposited them in her own account. In addition to buying pills, she used the money to live beyond her means, which included buying a new SUV. In the first eight months of 2011, records show she spent $26,000 in retail stores alone, prosecutor Amy Ariyoshi said.
The theft created a financial hardship for the school, which was forced to cancel expansion plans for its program supporting underprivileged children. Judge Gary Medvigy said publicity from the crime has impaired the school's ability to solicit donations.
Medvigy called Accornero's actions an "extreme violation of trust" that persisted over years.
"You just kept raiding the coffers," Medvigy told Accornero, seated before him in a blue jail uniform. "And these are needy children."
He denied her request for probation, citing a past record that included a conviction for felony residential burglary. He instead sentenced her to 4 years, 8 months in the California Rehabilitation Center, which treats addicts. She'll be out in about a year.
She also was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $398,574.
Her lawyer, Steve Weiss, made a first installment in the form of a $9,500 check which he handed over to prosecutors Thursday.
Weiss argued Accornero suffered from childhood trauma and was ruled by her addiction. She "took the easiest path to feed it," he said.
Now, he said she felt remorse for her crime and was off drugs. A number of people spoke in her support.
"In many aspects of her life she is a wonderful person," Weiss said. "She was hired by Kid Street because they recognized she was caring and loving."
Conklin, the Kid Street principal, didn't attend the sentencing. Kay Allen, a school board member who sat in the audience, declined to comment.
Accornero had worked for the school since 2005. She was named a suspect after a credit union employee noticed deposits into her account.
Police said that from 2008 to 2011, she wrote hundreds of checks to herself for $1,000 or less, forging her principal's signature on them. The theft escaped detection by annual audits, school district reviews and the school's bank.
But the small checks added up to sizeable losses. For example, Accornero withdrew $46,000 in 2010 and $106,000 in 2011, prosecutors said.
"She was spending a portion of the money on a lifestyle she could not afford," Ariyoshi said.
Accornero admitted the crime almost immediately. In January, she pleaded guilty to counts of felony grand theft, forgery and possession of narcotics.
Accornero was one of a handful of North Coast residents charged in large embezzlement cases last year.
Eleanor Zapanta, 51, of Guerneville, is charged with stealing about $712,000 from the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa. If convicted, she faces about six years in prison. Her preliminary hearing is March 15.