To her employers, Leticia Bernabe was a cunning employee who first gained their confidence, then secretly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, nearly forcing them into bankruptcy.
To those closest to her, Bernabe was a tragedy-stricken Philippine immigrant driven to crime because of her blind pursuit of a lifelong dream of opening a restaurant that would serve her native food, her attorney said.
Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Horowitz sentenced Bernabe, 49, to the maximum term of 10 years and eight months in prison after she pleaded guilty to bilking a downtown Los Angeles clothing manufacturer and a West Hollywood advertising firm out of more than $340,000.
The sentence brings an abrupt end to Bernabe's four years as a bookkeeper who did more than balance the books and who did so in a disorganized way that still baffles police and prosecutors. Her eventual arrest could almost have been predicted, officials said.
"She actually drew suspicion to herself, and eventually she would have been found out," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Barbara Stone said. "Greed is funny, and she got caught up in it."
The ease with which Bernabe obtained jobs was startling, and her daring behavior--even when out on bail--was that of a naive person caught up in her crimes, Deputy Dist. Atty. Judy Gray said.
Also surprising is that Bernabe apparently turned to crime at the age of 44, said her attorney, Malcolm McNeil. He said she was distraught over recent deaths in her family, marital problems and an unfulfilled dream of bringing a little bit of the Philippines to Los Angeles.
Quiet, Courteous, Shy
Her neighbors in Glendale described her as a quiet woman, courteous but somewhat shy, and not a likely candidate for being the person whom one police report called "completely incapable of rehabilitation."
"She was a very pleasant person, sort of quiet, but always friendly," said one neighbor, who did not want her named used.
Bernabe's criminal exploits began in 1980 and continued on a relatively small scale for about three years, according to police. She was eventually arrested on a variety of charges, including passing bad checks and stealing credit cards. Before her sentencing on May 30, Bernabe had served a total of about 30 days in county jail for women for those crimes, Gray said.
But in February, 1983, she became more ambitious and, using a phony resume, landed a job as head bookkeeper at R. Doherty International Inc., a Los Angeles-based sportswear manufacturing firm run by a husband and wife, Gray said.
"In the beginning, she couldn't do enough for the company," Kathleen and Richard Doherty told police, according to Bernabe's probation report. "She skillfully gained our confidence and trust."
But as head bookkeeper, Bernabe, who was using the alias Leticia Arcangel, soon began altering checks and depositing the money in her personal bank accounts.
'Simple, Brazen' Method
"Her method was very simple and at the same time very brazen," Los Angeles police Detective Reynaldo Morales said.
Morales said Bernabe sometimes would alter her paychecks or, on several occasions, expense checks for office supplies she had purchased with her own money.
For example, if her paycheck was for $900, Bernabe would alter the amount to read $9,900, Gray said. When the checks were returned to the company, they would be sent to her and, instead of putting them in the files, Bernabe would take them home, Gray said.
"She had a pretty good thing going, but it's hardly the best operation I've seen," Morales said. "I'm kind of amazed she even tried to pull it off. She didn't cover herself."
During the five months that Bernabe embezzled from the sportswear company, she began to make extravagant personal purchases, including jewelry, expensive clothes and a $240,000 town house in the hills north of downtown Glendale.
"She was so open as to show up to work with a $55,000 Porsche," the Dohertys told police. "When questioned about all this extravagance, she advised that her husband was having an affair and (she) caught him. This was (supposed to be) his way of saying he was sorry."
Her operation soured, however, in July, when Kathleen Doherty saw the company's bank statement on Bernabe's desk and noticed that many checks had been altered and made payable to Bernabe, according to police reports.
"We came so close to losing everything we had worked so hard for," the Dohertys told police. "We had to start all over again to pick up the pieces. . . . It's been over a year and we're still not over the theft."
Bernabe admitted embezzling more than $130,000 from the Dohertys. Because she eventually stopped paying the company's bills, the loss stands at about $200,000, the owners told police.
Two weeks after quitting her job, she was arrested, pleaded not guilty, and was released on $10,000 bail, Detective Morales said.