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