COLLIER COUNTY — Telling Carol Peabody that she had squandered her chances for a lighter sentence, a judge sent her to prison for eight years Friday for embezzling more than $250,000 from a former employer.
Peabody, the wife of a Collier County sheriff's deputy, was the office manager at Gulfcoast Irrigation Inc. when she wrote 211 fraudulent checks from the business' account between 2005 and 2009.
She wrote 31 checks to her husband, Michael Peabody. She insisted that he knew nothing of her scheme, and he was not charged with any crime.
Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker said he couldn't believe Michael Peabody did not benefit from his wife's crime and that he should be "standing right next to her" in front of the judge.
Baker told Peabody, 52, that he had no choice but to give her the eight-year sentence, the maximum under a January plea agreement, because she had not done enough to pay back business owner Gary Withstandley.
"I can't just leave people hanging out there like this," he said.
Peabody also was sentenced to 22 years probation and must pay back the full $256,746 that she stole from Withstandley. So far she has repaid nothing.
Baker said he would consider reducing her prison term if her family is able to make enough progress in the next 60 days to repay Withstandley.
Peabody's mother, sister and two sons were in the courtroom and hugged her tearfully before she was fingerprinted and taken into custody. Peabody said nothing in court.
Baker had harsh words for Michael Peabody, who was not in the courtroom. "He's not taking a bit of responsibility for you and I'm sorry for that," Baker said.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office responded late Friday to Baker, reiterating past statements that Michael Peabody was unaware of his wife's activities.
"The thorough joint investigation between the State Attorney's Office and the Collier County Sheriff's Office economic crimes bureau did not identify any evidence to suggest what the judge has speculated," spokeswoman Karie Partington said.
Baker said he was unswayed by letters of reference from people vouching for Carol Peabody's character.
Withstandley wrote his own letter, saying Peabody was "very good" at her job and that he trusted her.
"Knowing that her husband was a Collier County Sheriff just made me more confident in her abilities and character," he wrote.
Her fraud put his business of 20 years at risk, and suppliers shut off his credit accounts, he wrote. He borrowed money from banks and friends and racked up big credit card debts to stay in business and worked hundreds of extra hours "to pull through this nightmare."
"I was divested, humiliated and embarrassed," he wrote.
Assistant State's Attorney Brenda Wade asked Baker to impose the eight-year prison sentence because of the extent of the fraud and the trust placed in her by Withstandley.
"The defendant systematically, on an ongoing basis, violated that trust," Wade said. "She did it over and over and over again."
Defense attorney Michelle Hill said a relative of Peabody is trying to cash out a retirement plan and all of her family members are working jobs to help with restitution. Peabody had recently gotten a job as a household aide for an elderly acquaintance, Hill said.
The charges against her have made it hard to find a job, which in turn has made it impossible to repay Withstandley, Hill said. Now she's headed to prison.
"It has been a catch-22," she said. "It's kind of been a snowball effect."