STERLING – Stop me if you've heard this one:
A longtime employee, considered to be family, violates a position of extreme trust and breaks the hearts of her boss and coworkers by stealing vast amounts of money to finance a hobby that's overtaken her life.
Trisha Clemens of Sterling was sentenced Tuesday to 6 years in prison, and ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution, plus fines and fees, in two felony theft cases. With day-for-day credit, she could be out and paying her tab by March 2021.
It's a big one: That's $291,153.45 she owes Sterling law firm Miller & Lancaster, for stealing deposits, not reporting cash payments, and writing checks for herself and her credit card bills from Dec. 3, 2007, through May 18, 2015, and $108,793 she must pay famed fantasy author and Sterling native Terry Brooks, whose comic book collection, stored at the firm, she ransacked and sold piecemeal.
Although, Judge Stanley Steines noted, "never in her lifetime" will she fulfill her obligation.
"Arguably, the restitution in this case is immeasurable," Steines said. Not only will she never make enough to pay the firm and the 73-year-old Brooks back, Clemens also never will be able to repair the damage she has done to the firm's reputation, or the heartache she's caused her family.
Clemens, who had hoped for 4 years' probation, cited an online gambling addiction and alcohol abuse. Past sexual abuse contributed to both "coping mechanisms," she said. In her apology, she called herself "a very good person" who made "some very poor decisions."
Nonetheless, "I do feel the state's recommendation of 6 years with the Department of Corrections is more than reasonable," the judge said.
"An example does need to be set," he said, noting the now infamous Rita Crundwell theft, among other area embezzlements by employees in a position of trust.
Clemens, 37, was hired by then-Miller, Lancaster, Walker & Burral when she was 19 or 20.
"She grew up in the firm," partner John Miller testified at Tuesday's sentencing hearing. "I never would have believed that she could betray that trust ... The sense of betrayal – that she would steal from me – was awful."
Clemens was fired in June 2015, after the embezzlement came to light, Miller said.
At the time, she was his assistant and the firm's bookkeeper – and with a salary of about $43,000 a year, its highest-paid employee.
She also was the office cleaning woman, a job she did for an additional $300 a month, he said.
Clemens paid the bills, paid the attorneys' health, life and malpractice insurance premiums, and managed to find ways to make bank deposits, although she was not supposed to. Oftentimes, the cash in those deposit bags didn't make it to the bank. She took the firm's money, and money in its trust account – clients' money that the firm holds in abeyance – which could have cost them their law licenses.
Thanks to her skimming money for premiums, one attorney's life insurance policy was canceled, and now, because of health issues, he's ineligible for a new one, Miller said.
The embezzlement case was filed Sept. 10, 2015; she was charged with the comic-book thefts in a separate case on April 21, 2016. She pleaded guilty Nov. 29. In addition to prison time and restitution, she will be on mandatory supervised release for 2 years.
The petite mother of two – a girl, 8, and a boy, 10 – is paying in other ways, Steines noted. Her husband filed for divorce in January 2017, she's been publicly shamed, is destitute and living with her parents, and now will be separated from her children.
While out on bail, though, Clemens twice broke the terms of her release by drinking, and in fact has a pending DUI case, filed in Lee County on Dec. 11, while she was awaiting sentencing in the two thefts – which Steines said also played into his decision to give her prison time.
The terms of her release on bond are essentially the same as they would have been had she been granted probation, and so he had no confidence that she would follow the rules, especially given that she is not now in treatment, he said.
Brooks, who graduated from Sterling High School in 1962, was a partner at the firm that preceded Miller & Lancaster. He is a New York Times best-selling author of the "Shannara" books and TV series, as well as the "Landover" series, and "The Word and Void" trilogy.