In Healdsburg a story of money, betrayal and a soccer mom

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No matter how hard he worked, Michael Villa's finances always seemed to be running a little low.

It got so bad for the Healdsburg civil attorney that a few years after opening his own firm, Villa moved to a smaller office and cut back the hours of his only employee, administrative assistant April G. Hale.

"I was working my tail off," Villa said. "But no matter how hard I ran, there never seemed to be enough money to go around."

Then one day Villa did something out of the ordinary. He opened a letter on Hale's desk containing the firm's bank statement, curious about whether he was getting charged a new $10 fee.

Villa said what he found nearly blew him away. Someone had been transferring thousands of dollars a month to a handful of unfamiliar accounts, including five credit cards, the phone company and PG&E.

Villa soon realized he had been ripped off by his trusted secretary to the tune of $105,000.

"I thought I knew this woman," Villa said. "She used to say, &‘Mike, you take care of the law part and I'll take care of the rest.' She nearly bankrupted the firm."

Hale, 38, of Windsor, was arrested in June and charged with 41 felonies, enough to send her to prison for about seven years if she was convicted.

Earlier this week, she entered a plea bargain with prosecutors, admitting six felony counts including grand theft, identity theft and mail fraud in exchange for a guarantee of no more than a year in county jail. Her sentencing is Jan. 31.

Hale is to pay restitution of more than $116,000 and get three years' probation. Court records show she had two prior misdemeanor petty theft convictions in 2001 and 2004.

Hale remained out on bail until sentencing and declined to comment Tuesday when reached by phone. But her lawyer, Evan Zelig, said she might be allowed to serve her time under electronic home confinement.

"She has accepted responsibility for her actions," Zelig said. "We just wanted to make sure she got a reasonable sentence."

A district attorney spokeswoman, Diana Gomez, said employee thefts take a toll because they are not usually discovered for many years.

In the Hale case, she said fraud investigators were able to verify 40 separate transactions tied to the secretary's personal accounts.

"These types of thefts are difficult to detect," Gomez said. "But she left an electronic trail."

Villa described Hale as the "perfect fit" for his fledgling firm when he hired her in 2005.

She was returning to work after having a child and seemed good at everything - from managing his computerized accounting system to checking up on his wife when she had a cold.

By 2008, Villa's finances were perilously in the red. He gave up a long-term lease on a building he was planning to buy and reduced his only employee to part-time.

But he said the soccer mom and contractor's wife lived well, renting a four-bedroom home in the foothills section of Windsor, wearing designer clothes and jewelry and driving a sport utility vehicle.

She befriended Villa's wife, often exchanging email and recipes. The families socialized frequently.

"I counted her among my very closest friends," Villa said.

Behind Villa's back, Hale was stealing from him in amounts up to $6,000 a month, he said. If a client paid him $10,000 for legal services, Hale would skim half off the top to pay personal credit cards, falsifying the books to cover it up, he said.

Villa said he discovered in a review of computer records that Hale had used the company's general checking account to make 115 personal transactions over 3-1/2 years.

The "purely discretionary" spending included things like a tummy tuck, beauty treatments and travel, he said. She bought a Chevy Tahoe with some of the money and stayed in hotels in Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco, he said.

Hale even purchased, at the firm's expense, frozen rodents for her pet python, Villa said.

"She led me to believe it was covered by her husband's paycheck," Villa said. "But in reality, it was a lifestyle she could not otherwise afford."

Her lawyer said the money was spent on "needs, not wants."

Villa confronted Hale in April about the accounts and he said she walked out of the office, never to return. He said the embezzlement screwed up his federal income taxes. He has agonized over whether to hire again and says his case is a warning to other employers to be vigilant against thieves.

"The financial loss hurt but it's the emotional betrayal that is actually more painful," Villa said. "Your brain tells you what happened but your heart says it can't be so."

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