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Out of the Mall and Into Court: The 'Shopaholic Defense'

Successful 'retail therapy' argument is a wake-up call for a consumer-driven culture.

July 06, 2001|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether it's Manolo Blahniks or model ships, bingeing on unneeded purchases only to regret them when the bills arrive is fast becoming a national pastime. But now, thanks to a novel federal ruling, there appears to be a medical justification for compulsive shopping good enough to stand up in court. Goodbye AmEx bill, hello Hermes Birkin bag.

A Chicago woman who embezzled nearly $250,000 from her former employer to finance shopping binges was recently spared jail time by invoking what is believed to be the first "shopaholic defense." Elizabeth Roach, 47, bought expensive clothing and accessories, not to keep her closet current, but to "self-medicate" her depression, according to evidence presented to the U.S. District Court in Chicago during her sentencing hearing.

"Most of the media believe I have come up with a clever defense on the order of pulling a fast one," defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback said. "But it was obvious that this lady was and is terribly ill. She hasn't gotten away with anything."

In today's consumer-driven culture, shopping is one indulgence that is deemed socially acceptable. Movies and television bombard with "buy" messages, T-shirts boast "Born to Shop," and "retail therapy" is a way to forget one's troubles. The term "shopaholic," far from taboo, has become a catch phrase used to sell everything from mall-adjacent hotel rooms to novels ("Confessions of a Shopaholic") targeted at young women. But the Illinois case, like an early morning credit collector, has been a wake-up call. Too much shopping can be a problem.

"Lots of people use shopping to feel good, but people who do it compulsively feel out of control if they don't do it, and guilty when they do," said Robert Galatzer-Levy, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and the University of Chicago. After examining Roach for her defense, he said in an interview, "she seldom used the things she shopped for or got pleasure from them."

Roach, who has declined all requests for interviews, racked up $500,000 in credit-card debt, buying a purse for $9,000, a belt buckle for $7,000, designer outfits and dozens of pairs of shoes, according to court documents. She paid the bills by padding her corporate expense accounts. Last year, federal prosecutors charged her with embezzling and related wire fraud, and she pleaded guilty. In the year she awaited sentencing, Roach paid back former employer the Arthur Andersen company (now known as Accenture), by selling stock and taking out a second mortgage on her condominium, Steinback said. The felony conviction could have landed her a sentence of up to 18 months in prison--if not for U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly's decision.

After reading corroborating opinions from four psychiatrists who examined Roach for the defense, and an independent psychiatrist paid for by the government, Kennelly found that her "diminished mental capacity" contributed to the commission of her crime. "In an effort to self-medicate, she engaged in compulsive behavior, namely shopping binges. She was not in any real way able to control that behavior," the judge said in his decision.

Because of her condition, she escaped jail time and was sentenced instead to five years' probation, six months of weekends confined to her home, six weeks in a Salvation Army work release center and a $30,000 fine. The judge forbade Roach to acquire new credit cards and required her to continue getting psychiatric counseling.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Joel Levin isn't buying "her condition" or her right to any leniency in sentencing. He's readying an appeal.

Roach is a woman who on the surface appears to have it all, according to court documents. With bachelor's and master's degrees, she has been employed in a succession of consulting jobs that have earned her ever increasing salaries--$150,000 when she worked as an "experienced manager and associate partner" for Andersen and $175,000 in her current position at Computer Science Corp. She is married to attorney Michael C. Roach, who specializes in health care and privacy law, and they live in a condo that's within walking distance of Chicago's tony Michigan Avenue shopping district.

History of Depression

But behind her success lurks a disturbed little girl, according to court documents. Roach, whose parents were divorced, was sexually molested by a relative during adolescence, has suffered from bulimia, and at various times has tried to burn herself with cigarettes. Throughout her childhood, the only way her emotionally distant father would show his love was by giving her his credit cards.

"I certainly can be fooled, but this lady breaks your heart," Steinback said. "She has a history of horrendous depression. But for the fact that she is a practicing Catholic, and suicide is a sin, I'm not sure she would still be here."

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