Small towns bring large risks | SteamboatToday.com

Small towns bring large risks

Expert: Trust creates victims

Melinda Dudley

Terri Dawn Moody Fatka

— Steamboat Springs’ friendly Western charm and small-town atmosphere – frequently touted to attract tourists and homebuyers – also makes Steamboat businesses and customers more vulnerable to victimization by embezzlers, according to a local security consultant.

“In rural areas, we tend to be more trusting – both as customers of an institution and as employers,” security consultant Rob Douglas said Saturday. “We really tend to look at one another as neighbors, which is good, but people who perform the types of crimes that are alleged here can often take advantage of that.”

Two Steamboat bank tellers were arrested Thursday on suspicion of embezzling $1.2 million from Alpine Bank account holders during the past 2 1/2 years, an alleged theft that police say is the largest in recent memory.

Pamela Jean Williams, of Milner, and Terri Dawn Moody Fatka, who lives on Routt County Road 41A south of Steamboat Springs, were arrested at the Steamboat branch of Bank of the West, where they began working as tellers in January. The women, both 41, were charged with theft of more than $20,000, a Class 3 felony, and forgery, a Class 5 felony.

Williams and Fatka were released from Routt County Jail on Thursday night on $20,000 bond. They face up to 15 years in prison if convicted on both charges.

Both women are longtime Routt County residents, each having graduated from high school here. They are homeowners, married with children and well known in the community. At last year’s second annual Steamboat Springs Relay For Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, Williams was Alpine Bank’s team captain, Relay For Life co-chair Luther Bernston said.

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There is no strong criminal profile for embezzlers – they are all over the map in terms of age and gender, Douglas said. What set Williams’ and Fatka’s alleged crimes apart are the sheer amount of money stolen and the fact that they allegedly collaborated on the thefts, Douglas said.

A former political commentator and private detective in Washington, D.C., Douglas is a Steamboat resident who now works with the financial services industry to prevent theft, inside and out.

Nothing close

Although Steamboat businesses have been targeted by employee theft in the past, $1.2 million is an unprecedented amount – not just for the Yampa Valley, but the entire banking industry and the country as a whole, Douglas said.

“It’s a pretty big deal in little Steamboat,” he said. “It’s going to turn some heads.”

Previous local cases do not approach the $1.2 million figure.

In 2005, a former hotel manager pled guilty to embezzling more than $30,000 while employed at the Steamboat Springs Hampton Inn and Suites. Angela Ellen Robinson, who cashed checks made out to former hotel employees who were kept on payroll, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 10 years probation. Robinson also was required to serve 100 hours of community service and repay the entire amount stolen.

In court, Robinson said she began embezzling in December 2004 to pay for Christmas gifts for hotel guests and to give unapproved raises and bonuses to hotel employees who she thought were underpaid. Robinson continued to give bonuses to herself and other managers from February through August 2005.

In 2002, an Oak Creek woman was arrested for draining $1,700 from a checking account at her workplace. The woman confessed to taking the money to pay off her bills.

Between 1997 and 1999, former employee Denise Martinez embezzled more than $40,000 from a Steamboat Springs High School activity fund. In 2000, she was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to repay the stolen funds to the school’s insurance company.

A decade ago, an employee embezzled $125,000 from RE/MAX Steamboat – a debt the real estate agency needed nearly five years to pay off. The employee who stole the money had sole control over several checking accounts and handled all mail, which allowed her to cover up her theft for some time.

Checking accounts

In the ongoing investigation, police are looking for additional victims and exploring the possibility that Williams and Fatka also stole money from Bank of the West account holders. Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae has declined to comment on how the women allegedly stole the money or what led investigators to them.

Representatives of Alpine Bank and Bank of the West have declined to comment about the case.

Douglas said banking insiders have a number of tools at their disposal that make it easier for them to conceal their crimes.

Bank employees are familiar with the institution’s security procedures and also can conceal thefts as bank transactions or make them appear as identity theft, to deflect suspicion outside the bank, he said.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t check their statement very carefully,” Douglas said. “There is study after study that shows that those of us who are fanatical about banking online and checking our statements online are the least likely to be victimized, and the most likely to catch it.”

But in a small community like Steamboat, a false sense of security can come naturally for bank customers, who often know bank employees on a first-name basis.

“I’m just amazed that this happened in Steamboat Springs,” city resident Jan Serafy said Saturday. “You’d think your money would be safe in the bank, of all places.

“The first thing I did when I found out about the thefts was call Bank of the West and check on my accounts,” she continued. “You just can’t trust people anymore.”

– To reach Melinda Dudley, call 871-4203

or e-mail mdudley@steamboatpilot.com