Exactly how much money Janis Lee Bowen stole from a small, Chantilly auto-repair company is still in dispute. But one thing for certain is where she'll be spending the next 3 1/2 years — in prison.
That's the sentence she received last Friday in Fairfax County Circuit Court for three counts of embezzlement. Afterward, Clifton resident Don Ballard — who owns the victimized business — said he was glad his former employee received time behind bars.
"You always want more," he said. "But the bottom line is she's gonna pay — and that's great."
Bowen, 43, of 7936 Brighton Way in Manassas, worked as the office manager for Master Mechanic Diagnostic & Repair Inc. from April 2000 through March 2002.
"I terminated her April 2, 2002," said Ballard. "She'd been embezzling for almost two years." According to Bowen's attorney, Dan Kriskey, she pilfered $34,500. But Ballard says the total loss is more than $100,000, and it's a serious blow.
"It really hurts," he said. "We're a small business, and it's absolutely crushing."
Actually, Bowen kept secrets right from the start — and Ballard painfully learned that almost nothing she'd told him about herself was true. She was sentenced in court under the name, Janis Lee Bowen. But the whole time she worked for Ballard, she led him to believe her name was Naomi Janis Coffey. He later found out she also had another alias, Janis L. Rice.
As office manager, she was responsible for reconciling sales receipts and bank statements. "She was the one who was given all the money and checks, and she made the bank deposits," said Ballard. "I terminated her for falsifying a deposit record. She made a bogus photocopy of a check from her to the company, showing she'd paid her work-related cell-phone bill. But that check was never deposited — it didn't match the bank statement."
As Ballard eventually learned, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Two days later, bank statements for March 2002 arrived, and Ballard discovered that Bowen had written three checks to herself from the company. They were for $1,000; $1,150 and $1,500 for "advances" and "spring bonuses."
"We then began a line-by-line, folder-by-folder examination of the records dating back prior to her employment here," said Ballard. "It turned out she'd been writing herself checks for a year and pulling them out before I saw the bank statements. Prior to and during that time, she'd been skimming cash out of the deposits to the tune of $2,000 to $2,500 a month."
The whole thing left Ballard feeling betrayed. "She was the one producing the financial statements," he said. "There was trust."
Customers paying in cash handed the full amount to Bowen, who'd verify it against the computer-generated sales report. Trouble was, the full amount didn't make it to the bank — ending up, instead, in Bowen's pocket.
"The bank deposits weren't verified against the sales records by a third party — it was her job," explained Ballard. "She attempted to stay under the radar. She later admitted to one of my employees that she stole the money."
After firing her and receiving the March bank statements, said Ballard, "I gave her the opportunity to cough up the money when I thought it was $50,000. She said she was going to handle it, and then she said she had no way of paying it back. I pressed charges immediately after that."
Ballard contacted financial-crimes Det. Jim Reid and, on May 8, Bowen was charged with five counts of felony embezzlement. Two months later, July 3, before head Circuit Court Judge Michael McWeeny, she pleaded guilty to three counts. The other two were dropped, based on her plea and the stipulation that she make full restitution.
Since then, Ballard hasn't received a dime from her. But he uncovered lots of information about her past. He learned that the name she'd given him, her social security number and birthdate were all fictitious and that Bowen was her real name. He also found out this wasn't her first brush with the law.
"She has a criminal history under 'Janis L. Rice' in Florida, and they had warrants out for her arrest for probation violation and one count of uttering [passing a bad check]," he said. "She also had a 1998 drug conviction in Loudoun County under 'Coffey,' and Loudoun is looking for her to pay her court costs. I got a notice of garnishment of wages."
Ballard said he gets references for all his employees. But in Bowen's case, "From what we can tell, even her job reference was allegedly a fake. She's not a forthright person — she's used fake names and did crimes in multiple jurisdictions. I ended up paying $13,000 for an audit — money I wouldn't have had to spend, if not for her."
Altogether, he said, Bowen's dishonesty cost him close to $150,000. He says $100,000 was stolen from the business, and bank charges and auditing fees cost him another $43,000. Adding insult to injury, he said, "She hasn't ever apologized or shown the least bit of remorse."
Besides being angry about his own loss, Ballard said he prosecuted Bowen because "I don't want this to happen to other people. It's a terrible thing. I felt devastated; you trust someone and they steal from you. You do not expect people to treat you like that. It made me pretty much lose my faith in humanity — you think everybody has an angle."
In court Friday afternoon, Mary Beth Madison — who did the audit on the Chantilly business — testified that monetary discrepancies arose a month after Bowen was hired. Besides Master Mechanic, Ballard owns an associated business, Auto Wizard, and Madison said shortages turned up in both of them.
Ballard also took the stand, saying Bowen's thefts put Master Mechanic in "severe, financial constraints. There's a lot of money taken, and we don't know where it went." Referring to a restitution plan proposed by Bowen's attorney, Kriskey, whereby she'd pay him $400 a month, Ballard called it "almost offensive," considering how much he's owed.
Then Bowen testified, saying she didn't start embezzling until April 2001. She said she used the money to pay $27,000 in medical bills for a sick boyfriend. But neither Ballard nor Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John Murphy believed her.
"You were engaged in white-collar crime as far back as 1995 — grand theft, possession of forged bills, checks paid on insufficient funds," he said. Bowen replied that she had "an extreme drug problem" then.
Addressing Judge McWeeny, Murphy said the whole case was truly tragic: "Small businesses like Ballard's are the backbone of this country, and the devastation caused by the cancer [that was] in this company is incalculable. [Bowen] impacted Ballard's life and the lives of his employees. She wanted to steal and came into that company as a predator. She's been practicing for what she did ... for a long time."
Murphy said everyone involved would probably die of old age before Bowen paid Ballard back the $100,000 she stole, but "she ought to be punished." Kriskey said his client does intend to pay what she owes and has "seen the light — she knows what she did is wrong." And Bowen said she feels remorse and realizes "the decisions I made were irresponsible and harmful to myself."
Acknowledging that "there's no way to make the victim whole," McWeeny said, "This is a serious crime and the court will sentence it in that fashion." He then sentenced Bowen to six years in prison on each count, suspending 2 1/2 years of each sentence. He ran the sentences concurrently, leaving Bowen with 3 1/2 years total to serve.
He also placed her on seven years probation upon her release and ordered her to make restitution of $34,500 at $400/month. However, the judge left the door open for a civil suit against her. "That is not a cap on what you will owe, if the victim is able to establish a higher amount," he warned Bowen. "There could still be a civil trial to determine the exact amount."