Trial opens in jail fund theft
BRECKENRIDGE – No matter what the jury finds, $34,000 in jail inmates’ money disappeared. But in a trial that began Monday, the jury will have to decide if the jail’s former accounting system was a mess, if another jail officer could have taken the money or if Mary Jean Bottorf is responsible for stealing it.
Bottorf is charged with felony theft and embezzlement of public property.
The 54-year-old former Summit County Jail administrative assistant appeared in District Court in Breckenridge Monday, just down the hall from where she worked between 1996-99.
Jury selection and testimony of two of the prosecution’s witnesses took up the bulk of the day’s proceedings.
In the next four days of scheduled trial, the prosecutors will attempt to prove that Bottorf had access to a jail bank account, had failed to reconcile the account’s balance for months, ignored bank overdraft statements and had no explanation for the snafu when confronted by jail supervisors.
Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham told the jury in opening statements that Bottorf was an animal-lover who took in more pets than she could care for and told at least one other jail officer that the costs of caring for the animals far outweighed her salary.
Nancy Salamonie, the court-appointed attorney defending Bottorf, characterized her client as an overworked employee with no experience in accounting who was required to manage thousands of transactions.
Salamonie stressed in her opening arguments that, as part of the investigation into the missing money, Bottorf’s personal finances were audited and “not one dime was unaccounted for.”
She said the investigation should have focused on other employees who had access to the missing money.
A shocking phone call
Jarrod Lassen, a 1stBank employee who formerly worked as the operations manager at the Breckenridge branch, was the first witness.
Lassen testified that, as part of his duties, he was responsible for reviewing daily overdraft reports. Lassen said the jail’s account for inmates’ money popped up on the report several times in December 1999.
The first time, Lassen told the jury, he contacted Bottorf immediately. The next day, he said, Bottorf made a deposit. In later instances, however, the overdraft wasn’t made up, Lassen said. He finally contacted a jail officer, Sgt. Tom Tilka.
Tilka, an 18-year veteran of the jail who supervised the account for 13 years before Bottorf took over, was the second witness. Tilka explained to the jury how the inmate account worked at the time the money was discovered missing.
When a person is arrested and booked into the jail, their personal property is confiscated. Any money on the person is counted by a deputy in the presence of the arrestee; both agree on the amount.
The money is placed in an envelope with an attached receipt indicating the amount of money inside. The inmate signs the receipt. (A record of the money is also logged in a separate system used for tracking all of the inmate’s personal property.)
After that, Tilka testified, it was Bottorf’s responsibility to total up all of the money collected from inmates and deposit it at the bank.
Inmates can still spend the money: “Commissary” items, such as toothpaste, stamps, snacks or clothing, can be purchased. The inmate can also use the money to bond out of jail. Inmates must also pay fees for being processed out of the jail or if they are on work release; the money in their account can pay for that.
Tilka told the jury the inmate account should never go “into the red.”
“I didn’t understand it,” Tilka said of receiving a phone call from Lassen at 1stBank when a released inmate went to cash a $400 check. Tilka learned the account was overdrafted by more than $3,000.
It shouldn’t have been possible for more money to go out of the account than went in, Tilka explained.
In fact, a “cushion” should have been there because no matter how much money inmates put in, they always take out less when they’re released because the jail collects a profit on commissary items (it pays the vendor less than it collects from inmates) and because of the fees collected for work release and processing inmates out of the jail.
After the phone call, Tilka said, he alerted his superiors, including Sheriff Joe Morales.
The officers searched the jail for any money that might have been misplaced or missed going to the bank. They found nothing.
The next day, officers confronted Bottorf, Tilka said. She had no explanation. Then, after Bottorf had gone into his office to retrieve a computer disc, Tilka went in to find an envelope with $3,000 in $100 bills.
“Inmates don’t come into jail with money like that,” Tilka said. “Somebody put it there.”
The defense attorney tried to point out holes in the jail’s accounting system.
In cross-examination, Salamonie elicited crucial details from Tilka including: It’s possible for deputies to pocket money from inmates because the money in the envelope was never checked against other records.
Also, typing errors and duplicate entries happened occasionally in the jail’s record keeping. And, possibly most damaging to the prosecution’s efforts for reaching a conclusion “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is the possibility of other suspects.
Bottorf was one of four people with access to the inmate money, Tilka testified, including Tilka himself. Another jail officer had acted suspiciously around the time the theft was discovered – he had started counting money for a deposit, even though it wasn’t his job.
The other officer also was going through a bankruptcy. The suspicion prompted Tilka to report the incident to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which investigated the theft.
Tilka reviewed the jail’s security tapes to see if it could have been the other officer who put the $3,000 in his office; the tapes weren’t working properly, Tilka said, and nothing could be seen.
Tilka’s testimony will continue today.
The trial has been a longtime coming after several mishaps in the judicial system.
Assistant District Attorney Rachel Fresquez, who is trying the case along with Oldham, said the case is a complicated one that required extensive investigation.
In addition, a preliminary hearing in the case had to be repeated because of problems with recording equipment.
The case also was delayed because the prosecuting attorney who originally filed the case, Ed Casias, is now the county court judge who would hear some of the legal arguments and motions in the case. The court had to arrange for a different judge to sit on the matter.
Judge Michael Villano from Jefferson County is presiding over the trial. Bottorf’s ability to hire her own attorney also was debated, which delayed proceedings.
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