I gambled it away, embezzler says

Money: A bank teller admits taking cash from the vault, but seeks a lighter sentence by attributing a luxury lifestyle to her husband's illegal activities.

May 15, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

As head teller at First Union's Pikesville branch, Marian D. Turner earned about $25,000 a year and enjoyed the trust and respect of her co-workers. She also had sole access to the bank's cash vault, and federal authorities say she put it to good use.

From July 1998 through 1999, investigators say, Turner took more than $1 million and went on a lavish spending spree.

There were a sprawling new house, a Toyota 4Runner and a Mercedes-Benz.

Just a few months before bank officials discovered the missing money during a routine audit, Turner and her husband threw a seated dinner party for 195 people at Martin's West banquet hall, complete with ice sculptures and a disc jockey.

Turner, 39, doesn't deny taking money. But in an unusual argument that could win her a lighter sentence when she appears tomorrow in U.S. District Court, she says the embezzled cash didn't buy all the fine things that federal investigators have tracked through canceled checks and store receipts.

Money for the house, the cars, big-screen televisions and a $39,000 trailer home for her mother in North Carolina, Turner suggests, came from her husband's disability income, old illegal-drug debts and gambling activities.

As for the money she took from the bank, Turner says she gambled away every dollar at casinos in Atlantic City and racetracks in Delaware.

"When I would lose, I would say, `Well, I'll go back and I will win it,'" Turner testified last month. "I didn't realize I had a gambling addiction - it's just like an alcoholic doesn't know he's an alcoholic. But now it's come to light. I do have an addiction."

It is not unheard of for defendants accused of stealing to claim a gambling problem. In one recent high-profile Baltimore case, Michael Timothy Snow, a former city police lieutenant, said that was what drove him to commit four bank robberies.

He was sentenced this spring by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz - the same judge who is hearing Turner's case - to 14 years in prison for the robberies, which netted about $250,000.

Turner, who pleaded guilty last June to one count of bank fraud, does not face nearly as much time, even though investigators say she took four times the amount of money. Under federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors say, Turner could get 57 to 71 months - or about five to six years.

She could see a still lower sentence if she convinces the judge that she struggled with a gambling problem or that she did not spend the stolen money on personal items.

Account of spending

So investigators have taken painstaking steps to try to prove that neither is true.

Federal agents compiled a detailed accounting of Turner's purchases, including the new 3,800-square-foot house on Morning Mist Court in western Baltimore County, where she has continued living since her arrest.

The house is valued at nearly $450,000, a deck overlooking the back yard cost $38,000 and landscaping approached $5,000.

Turner spent $21,174 on draperies and blinds between May and October 1999, the same year she earned $25,000 at the bank, court records show. Receipts showed $30,450 spent on jewelry and $18,023 for the party at Martin's West.

In all, investigators tracked nearly $1.2 million in spending from July 1998 to December 1999. That was about $781,000 more than Turner and her husband, Joseph Turner Jr., earned.

"During the 18-month period of the embezzlement, the defendant and her spouse engaged in a spending spree that far exceeded their available income and resources," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin said in court papers.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors also subpoenaed records for Turner and her husband at major casinos in Atlantic City and then asked gaming expert D. Robert Sertell of Vineland, N.J., to assess Turner's gambling habits.

His findings: Turner was a frequent $1 slot player, but it would have been nearly impossible for her to have lost $1 million on the machines.

To do that, Sertell reported, Turner would have had to be at the casinos much more often, gambling much larger sums. According to the records Sertell reviewed, the Turners saw a net gambling loss of $111,098 from 1996 through 1999.

Turner and her attorney, Baltimore lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell, have portrayed her gambling habits during the late 1990s far differently. Ravenell declined to let Turner be interviewed for this article, but he said her tale is far more complicated than the simple fact of the missing money.

"It's a tough situation when sometimes people just look at the act and say, `Well, the money is gone,'" Ravenell said. "They should look at it more broadly."

Court documents and testimony portray Turner as a capable, hard-working bank employee. Her former supervisor at First Union, Nadine J. Sheppard, said Turner, who had worked at various Baltimore banks for 12 years, was one of her most valued workers.

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