A federal judge sentenced a former finance director to 13 months in prison for stealing more than $100,000 from a shuttered Augusta nonprofit.

Jessica Childs of Litchfield had pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in April to one count of wire fraud. She admitted to embezzling the money over five years while she worked at Women Unlimited, which closed less than five months after the fraud was discovered.

Childs, 39, delivered a tearful statement Wednesday at her sentencing hearing in Portland. She apologized to her former coworkers, some of whom sat in the courtroom benches.

“I hurt an organization that was really important to the state of Maine and the people we served,” said Childs, who also was ordered to pay more than $43,000 in restitution to multiple parties. She already took out a nearly $60,000 loan to begin paying back the money she took.

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby imposed a sentence that was slightly less than the recommended range for this case. He said he tried to balance the severity of the case with needs of Childs’ family, in particular a minor daughter.

“The defendant’s conduct here was simply inexcusable,” Hornby said. “It was flagrant. It was prolonged. It has had enormous impact both directly in terms of the organization and its employees, and indirectly in terms of the people that it served.”

But Hornby also said he does not believe Childs will commit crimes in the future, and believes she has tried her best to support her family and her community.

“I sentence for wrongdoing,” Hornby said. “I don’t make a judgment about the overall person. People are complicated, and most people who come before me have a combination of good attributes and the attributes for which I sentence them.”

Court documents show that Childs worked for Women Unlimited for 11 years. Co-workers became suspicious of her in 2014 but did not uncover evidence of the fraud until the following year. She was immediately fired, but it was not until last year that she was charged with a crime. Her attorney said she cooperated with the investigation.

Childs shook from crying at times during the hearing Wednesday. Struggling to speak through her sobs, she told the judge that she attempted to kill herself in November 2015 when her employer discovered what she had done. She survived and has received mental health treatment since then, and she told the judge that she already has been working to pay as much restitution as possible.

“I have the desire to live a meaningful and healthy life,” she said.

The prosecutor asked for a sentence of 18 months and then five years of supervised release. Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Wolff said Childs obtained almost $65,000 in fraudulent cash advances and charged more than $33,000 in personal expenses to a company credit card. He emphasized the position of trust Childs held in the nonprofit and her role in its closure.

Women Unlimited trained people across the state to enter the trades, and Wolff said no similar program has taken its place since it shut down nearly four years ago.

“She stole for years from a small nonprofit organization that she knew could not withstand a financial shock,” Wolff wrote in his sentencing memo. “When her fraud was discovered and WU’s benefactors declined to fund the organization going forward, its fate was sealed. Its closure ended the good work that it had done in Maine for over 25 years and put its dedicated employees out of work.”

The defense asked for a sentence of one month in prison and then 14 months of home confinement. Attorney Stacey Neumann said a longer period of incarceration would not be appropriate because Childs is receiving her mental health treatment and paying restitution. She described a traumatic childhood and untreated mental health needs, saying they contributed to the fraud.

“Instead of turning to drink like her parents had before her, however, she turned to fraud,” Neumann wrote in her sentencing memo. “First it was just a little here and there to help pay this bill or that – to get a small amount of breathing room and in the meantime feel as if she was exercising some control when everything else felt like it was spinning.

“Soon the fraud took on a life of its own, consuming her every waking moment as she tried to keep it in check, determined she would somehow pay it all back before it was noticed.”

Former employees spoke about the work that Women’s Unlimited did and the void left by the organization’s end. Lib Jamison, who was the executive director, described the work done to train people for jobs as electricians, welders, truckers and in other fields. She said she still receives messages from people seeking the nonprofit’s help.

“That service has never been replicated since we closed,” Jamison said. “No one has stepped into the breach since we closed, and I don’t know if anyone will.”

Childs’ husband said the four years that have passed since Women Unlimited discovered the fraud have been a nightmare for his family. Brent Childs described the continuing mental health treatment for his wife, as well as the heart attack he suffered in the fall due to stress.

“I don’t think Jessie took a single dime of that money in her right mind,” he said. “I think she was hurt and broken. I don’t know why she did it, but I would beg you not to incarcerate her.”

The prosecutor declined to comment further on the case. The defense attorney said the case had been difficult for everyone involved.

“Jessie remains extremely remorseful for her actions,” Neumann wrote in an email. “She is determined to serve her sentence and continue making amends to those that she hurt with her actions.”

The judge allowed Childs to go home until she reports to prison Feb. 5. The federal Bureau of Prisons will determine where she will serve her sentence.


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