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School lunch accountant allegedly stole thousands of dollars a week

October 09, 2013|By Richard Winton

Prosecutors allege that a former Rialto school district accountant charged with embezzling $1.8 million stole more than $4,200 a week for eight years.

Judith Oakes, 48, faces 16 felony counts and the prospect of up to 11 years in prison if convicted of all the charges in what Rialto police say is the largest white-collar crime case they have ever handled.

Oakes, who was allegedly caught on video stuffing school lunch money into her bra, was charged Tuesday.

As nutrient services accountant, Oakes oversaw the lunch money collected from the district's 29 schools, along with related state and federal funds. The investigation into Oakes remains ongoing and police are planning to question other district officials as part of the probe.

Rialto Police Capt. Randy De Anda said the department was also investigating a supposed confession letter from Oakes, which has yet to be authenticated. De Anda said the letter was turned over to the school district last Friday by the San Bernardino Sun newspaper.

Oakes, who lives in San Bernardino, was arrested Aug. 7 on the basis of the video evidence, authorities said.

Law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Education are investigating why the loss was not discovered sooner.

An investigative firm hired by the Rialto Unified School District has so far found a "documented" loss of at least $1.8 million dating back to 2005, but warned the losses could be as high as $3.16 million, including discrepancies that could not be documented.

The district's superintendent and his deputy have been placed on leave by the school board. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

Oakes resigned the day after her arrest. She earned about $77,000 annually, but by all accounts lived a luxury lifestyle that included two homes, off-road vehicles and expensive trips.

De Anda said Oakes said "she had unfettered access to enormous sums of money over the years — much of it in cash." A search of her home turned up thousands of dollars in cash, De Anda said.

Supt. Harold L. Cebrun and his assistant, James S. Wallace, were placed on paid leave, but neither is considered a suspect, De Anda said.

Some school board members, meanwhile, are questioning the oversight of the lunch money.

"We have to ask: How could this person get away with this for so long? How did someone not catch her sooner or discover earlier that money was missing and the figures weren't adding up?" school board Vice President Edgar Montes asked last week.

Before going on leave, Cebrun said he knew nothing of the missing money. He told school board members that he had not committed a crime and had no knowledge of one.

District officials said they were working to recover the money if possible and implement new practices to oversee lunch funds.

It's been a tough year in the 26,000-student Rialto school district. In January, a high school basketball coach was shot at a San Bernardino park and later accused by police of withholding information about the attack. Another high school basketball coach was arrested in March and accused of molesting two of his female players.

Twitter: @lacrimes| Google+

richard.winton@latimes.com

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