Wadaga found not guilty

L’ANSE – After nine days and more than 100 exhibits of financial records, a Baraga County Circuit Court jury needed only two hours to find Cynthia Wadaga not guilty of embezzlement.

Wadaga, 47, of Baraga, was accused of taking as much as $24,000 from First Choice Auto Body in L’Anse between June 2009 and June 2011, when she was fired over the alleged theft.

Wadaga wept as the verdict was read. Her husband, Pat, rushed to Wadaga’s chair and hugged her tightly from behind as others clapped for the verdict. First Choice’s co-owners, William and Julie Ross, sat silently.

“I’m absolutely totally pleased,” Wadaga said. “I can get my life back after three long years, and it’s been three very long years on my family, my friends and everybody. I’m just very thankful for the jury.”

Wadaga’s attorney, George Hyde, was similarly happy with the verdict.

“I’ve said from day one the evidence wasn’t there,” he said. “She should not have been charged, because the evidence was never there. It was a very unfortunate thing, a very bad ordeal endured by the family for a number of years. I thank the jury for their service. They have done justice.”

Prosecutor Joseph O’Leary also thanked the jury.

“The jury did their job, they came to the decision they felt was appropriate and I thank them for their service,” O’Leary said.

Julie Ross declined to comment.

The case went to the jury about 5:45 p.m. Thursday. Wadaga had been charged with embezzling $20,000 or more but less than $50,000, a 10-year felony. The jury was told if it did find her not guilty of that charge, they were to consider the lesser offense of embezzling $1,000 or more but less than $20,000, a five-year felony.

Earlier Thursday, jurors heard closing arguments from both sides, as well as Wadaga’s cross-examination and rebuttal testimony from First Choice’s co-owners.

Prosecutor Joseph O’Leary told the jury to look past Wadaga’s “self-serving keystroke entries” in the audit trail created by First Choice’s Quickbooks accounting software, in which she had entered memos for things such as pizza, wrecker fuel and equipment. What matters, he said, are the things looked at by fraud examiner John Bengel: deposit summaries, deposit details and bank statements.

O’Leary said the variety of explanations Wadaga gave for the differences don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Wadaga broadening the range of people with opportunity to make the transactions also doesn’t hold up, O’Leary said. While other employees could have gotten the key to the cashbox, they probably wouldn’t have been skilled enough to cover their tracks. And co-owner William Ross, whom Wadaga said could have been behind many of the transactions, had been called inexperienced at Quickbooks by the company’s own accountant, O’Leary reminded the jury.

“He’s a body man, not an accounting man,” he said.

Attorney George Hyde contrasted Wadaga’s testimony favorably with William Ross, whom he said lied numerous times on the stand, and was evasive in other instances.

“She didn’t shy away from questions, she didn’t say ‘I don’t recall,’ ‘I don’t remember,'” he said. “Compare that to Willie Ross. He couldn’t answer a question to save his life a lot of times, especially when I pressed him on it.”

Hyde also asked jurors to consider the prosecution’s “fatal flaw”: not contacting the customers mentioned in its 100-plus exhibits to confirm or deny Wadaga’s account.

“People don’t get in accidents all the time … those folks are going to remember what happened,” he said.

O’Leary cross-examined Wadaga Thursday morning, presenting her with invoices for repair estimates. One exhibit included a $100 check that had not shown up in the deposit detail, the repairs had shown an amount of $1,604.39 – $100 lower. In the bank deposit, it was balanced with $100 less in cash.

The work was done under Wadaga’s Quickbooks account, although she has testified she was not the only person who had her password.

O’Leary gave Wadaga a preliminary estimate for repair, which contained a proposal for $1,790.75 in work. The Great Lakes Claim Service insurance company authorized $1,704.39 for the job. The next pages showed a parts list for the work, with Wadaga’s handwriting, as well as an invoice for parts ordered and a contract for a loaner car.

Wadaga said the actual work could still have varied once it got into the shop, she said.

“This doesn’t mean all the work was done on the car,” she said. “I stick with what I said yesterday. This doesn’t change anything.”

After the defense rested, O’Leary re-called First Choice co-owners William and Julie Ross to the stand. Contrary to Wadaga’s claims, William Ross said he had only infrequently left IOUs in the cash box for money taken out, and had paid it back.

“I own the business, but it’s the principle of things,” he said.

There would be no point in trying to take cash clandestinely, William Ross said.

“If I needed money out of the business, I could get it through the accounting,” he said. “It’s called a distribution … nothing illegal about it.”

Julie Ross testified the First Choice Auto Body checking account had been brutally affected during Wadaga’s tenure. She said the average balance for the 12 months prior to Wadaga’s employment and the past year had been close to $30,000. During Wadaga’s time, it dipped to $12,000, she said.

Hyde questioned her on those figures, pointing out individual months before and after Wadaga where funds had been perilously low. Hyde said those averages were also bumped up by infusions such as a $24,000 deposit; asked by Hyde, Ross said she couldn’t remember where that money had come from without looking.

Julie Ross said they had barely kept the business afloat near the end and for months after Wadaga’s employment, putting $18,000 of their own money into the account. She described the time since as “the hardest three years of my entire life.”

“The anger to know that somebody would do this to us,” she said. “The stress we’ve been under to even know if our business would survive. The emotional stress on us and our kids has been horrible, absolutely horrible. Our kids wonder how could anybody even do this to somebody. They’re 11 and under. Why do you have to do this?

“Because there are mean people in this world,” she said, turning to glare at Wadaga. “Selfish people that will take from businesses.”

Under questioning from Hyde, Wadaga described her own torment.

“It’s very difficult (to be accused of a crime),” she said. “Nobody knows how difficult it is to be going through this for three years.”