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Is 15 days enough?

The owner of an Oak Harbor business wasn’t pleased with a plea bargain that allowed a woman who stole more than $30,000 from him to spend 15 days in jail.

As part of a plea agreement, Rebecca Neil, 30, pleaded guilty in Island County Superior Court this week to theft in the first degree, which carries a standard sentencing range of up to 90 days in jail.

On Feb. 26, Judge pro tem John Linde went along with the sentence recommendation worked out by the prosecution and defense. He ordered Neil to serve 15 days in jail and pay back the restitution of $32,813 through a lengthy payment plan of $125 a month.

Neil, who has no criminal history, was originally charged with seven counts of theft in the second degree and one count of theft in the third degree. She would have faced more than a year in prison if convicted of those charges.

The victim in the case, Central Collision owner Mark Hesselgrave, said he felt that the sentence was “pathetic.” But in court, Neil’s attorney said his client wanted to take responsibility for her actions and work to pay the victim back, but that any jail time would merely be “retribution.”

Neil was the office manager for Central Collision when she stole the money from the business over a three-year period by crediting her personal bank card from the business’ credit line.

In a letter to a Superior Court judge, Hesselgrave detailed how Neil hid her deception and theft from him, but then refused to take responsibility and lied about her actions after she was caught. He wrote that she spent her money on luxury items, including many new cars.

Hesselgrave described how he finally discovered the thefts on Jan. 13, 2006.

“From that day forward my life has forever been changed,” he wrote. “It was just the beginning of the realization of the vast destruction she caused to my personal business which I set up 20 years ago.”

Not only did Neil steal large sums of money, Hesselgrave wrote, but she had not been paying the IRS and hid that fact from him and his accountant. It nearly destroyed his business.

“I have ever so painfully and slowly been rebuilding what Beckie destroyed and took from me,” he wrote.

Hesselgrave asked the judge to impose a lengthy sentence. “Two weeks isn’t enough for someone as cunning as her,” he wrote.

Monday, Island County Chief Criminal Prosecutor Colleen Kenimond and Neil’s attorney, Jonathan Dichter of Bothell, spoke in court at the sentencing hearing. Judge Alan Hancock ultimately recused himself after a courthouse employee stood up to speak; the sentencing was handled the next day by a San Juan County judge.

Dichter said Neil did not try to shirk responsibility for her crime by moving to California, but pointed out that she wasn’t charged for 18 months. He said she is remorseful. In fact, he suggested Neil didn’t steal $30,000.

“Rebecca actually believes the number is much lower, but she is willing to pay more,” he said.

Dichter said Neil took the money because she and her now ex-husband racked up “a mountain of debt” and she was left to deal with the bills.

The attorney asked that Neil be sentenced to electronic home monitoring at her house in California. He said Neil could lose her job and have trouble paying the restitution if she goes to jail.

“The only possible reason to put Rebecca in jail is flat-out retribution,” he said, “and we’re not in the retribution business.”

Kenimond asked the judge to follow the sentence recommendation of “15 days hard time.” She noted that another deputy prosecutor, who was much more familiar with the case, had worked out the plea bargain and she stands by the agreement.

“The state must be believed,” she said.

In the end, the judge pro tem agreed with the prosecution and immediately sent Neil to jail.

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