Car dealership embezzler sentenced to 14 years

March 23, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

The former treasurer of Jeff Barnes Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Geo Inc. in Eldersburg was sentenced yesterday to 14 years in state prison for stealing more than $625,000 over five years from the car dealership.

At the sentencing hearing for Stephen Clifton Sheeler, Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. called the theft the biggest embezzlement scheme he's seen in his 16 years on the bench.

"He's done a lot of damage to the company and to its employees," the judge said later in a telephone interview. "I don't think I've seen a bigger theft of that kind, ever, in Carroll County."

Sheeler, 47, of Rosedale, who had worked for Barnes for years, pleaded guilty Jan. 11 to one count of felony theft and admitted writing more than $625,000 worth of checks to himself since 1988.

Judge Burns imposed the maximum 15-year sentence, but suspended a year of it and imposed five years of supervised probation on Sheeler when he is released from prison.

The judge also ordered Sheeler to pay $594,458 restitution in monthly installments.

Neither Sheeler's attorney nor Deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch knows what Sheeler did with the stolen money.

"The problem is that Mr. Sheeler spent the money," said defense attorney T. Wray McCurdy in an interview. "This is a model family, and this is the only crime ever committed by anyone in the family. It's a hard case."

The attorney said Sheeler's wife and two children "will have to do something to pick up the pieces."

Court records show that Sheeler wrote 78 checks to himself from the company's Bank of Baltimore checking account and deposited them in his own bank account. The records say he cashed checks totaling $67,500 in 1988, $92,500 in 1989, $130,000 in 1990, $115,000 in 1991, $150,000 in 1992 and $70,000 last year.

When he was questioned by state police during a monthlong investigation last year, he referred to the money as loans.

Sheeler paid the car dealership more than $31,000 in restitution by selling jewelry, computer equipment, stocks and his share of the dealership's profit-sharing plan.

His modest rowhouse in eastern Baltimore County -- owned by him and his wife for 20 years -- was not liquidated, attorneys said yesterday.

In a letter read by Judge Burns from the bench yesterday, dealership owner Jeff Barnes said the hardest part of the theft was that it ruined his trust in people.

"These people were friends," Mr. Ulsch said later yesterday in an interview. "Jeff Barnes is a car salesman, he's not a [financial] books man, and he trusted Mr. Sheeler."

Mr. Ulsch pointed out that spread over five years, Sheeler's theft brought in an average of more than $125,000 a year, tax free.

"It's wild. He's had five years of this kind of money, and it's all been spent," the prosecutor said

Mr. McCurdy said that Sheeler is "hopeful" that his sentence will be reduced in the future.

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