A former Sampson County Sheriff’s Department employee was placed on probation today moments after pleading guilty to two felony counts of embezzlement stemming from the misappropriation of carry/conceal weapons permit monies collected by the Sheriff’s Office,
Superior Court Judge Douglas Parsons sentenced Mary Avery, 48, of 1785 Share Cake Road, Clinton to two consecutive sentences of a minimum of six months and a maximum of 17 months in the N.C. Dept. of Adult Correction. He ordered those sentences suspended for 36 months and placed Avery under supervised probation for 36 months, also mandating that she pay $9,160 in restitution to the Sampson Sheriff’s Office.
Avery was an administrative support specialist I with the Sheriff’s Department from Nov. 1, 1999 until she resigned her position on Oct. 31, 2013, just a few weeks after Sampson Sheriff Jimmy Thornton alerted District Attorney Ernie Lee to a county audit’s discovery of the embezzlement.
In court Monday, Avery apologized for her actions, specifically mentioning the sheriff, the Sheriff’s Office and the county and noting how sorry she was for betraying the trust placed in her.
“This is yet another incident of embezzlement that has become much too common in the Fourth Prosecutorial District and in the state,” Lee said in a prepared statement. “This office continues to work with law enforcement to prosecute these cases. Agency heads must trust their employees to do the right things in their jobs and for the citizens of the county or towns they are employed. However, far too many employees are violating that trust. In the end, the result is yet another person with no prior record being a convicted felon.”
Lee was contacted by Thornton on Oct. 16, 2013. The sheriff, he said, notified him that an employee may have been misappropriating some money. The two met the same day and discussed the audit’s finding.
Following that meeting, Lee contacted the State Bureau of Investigation, requesting an investigation. “On Oct. 17, I then made my request in writing. That’s generally the way I do things, make a call first, then follow it up with a letter. Seeking investigation by an outside agency was the appropriate way to handle this,” Lee said shortly after Avery’s arrest.
A special agent with the SBI’s southeastern district was immediately assigned to the case and a probe was conducted. Lee met with the SBI in early December 2013 and warrants were later drawn against Avery.
“The key to this was the sheriff’s quick response to the situation. The fact that he contacted us so quickly after the audit’s findings enabled us to move quickly with an investigation,” Lee said. “I cannot tell you how much I appreciate how quickly Sheriff Thornton responded.”
The routine audit uncovered $46,295 had been misappropriated over a calendar year. The county, however, was actually out a total cash amount of $9,160; other monies had been paid back.
According to a press release issued by Lee Monday, Avery admitted taking money to pay her bills. She explained that she intended to pay the money back by using her 401K monies, but she had already borrowed against her retirement and still owned $1,000. She believed once that money was repaid, she could borrow again and repay the monies she took from the Sheriff’s Office.
Lee said she told the investigator she was only trying to “make ends meet and was not spending the money on trips or expensive items.”
According to the release, Avery told investigators that in early 2013 her bills began to pile up. She explained that she would look at her checking account to see how much money she needed and would take that amount of cash from the concealed weapon permit money.
At the time of Avery’s arrest, Thornton offered his apologies. He reiterated those sentiments Monday.
“I regret what has happened and I apologize,” Thornton stressed back in December. “The people of this county have a right to an explanation and here it is,” Thornton said.
“Once I was notified by the auditor, I immediately made contact with the District Attorney and requested an investigation by an impartial agency,” the sheriff noted. “The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation was notified and agreed to conduct the investigation. We determined the facts and once we were certain what had happened, we took appropriate legal steps.”
The first warrant, which lists offense dates from July 1, 2012 through Dec. 31, 2012, states, in part, that there was probable cause to believe Avery “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously embezzled and used or misapplied to her own use money in the amount of $10,315, property belonging to and held in trust for Sampson County and the Sheriff’s Department. The second warrant reads similarly, with offense dates listed from Jan. 2, 2013 to Oct. 17, 2013, with a total money amount of $35,980.
An apologetic Thornton said Sampson County was the victim in the embezzlement and that the actual money amount the county was out was substantially less than the over $46,000 listed in the two warrants. He stressed that no carry/conceal holders were out any money and that no permits were ever in jeopardy.
“This has been an unhappy and unfortunate experience for everyone, and again, I regret it. This incident is being dealt with openly and forthrightly,” Thornton added.
He reiterated his apology and his regrets over the incident Monday. “I’m truly sorry this happened,” the sheriff stressed again.
Lee extended his thanks Monday to Thornton, his department and county administration for their cooperation during the investigation.
“I appreciate the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office and Sampson County Manager immediately making this office aware of the audit concerns. Furthermore, I appreciate the full cooperation of the Sheriff’s Office and the manager in assisting the SBI in the investigation,” Lee wrote in his Monday statement.