A woman accused of embezzling close to $9,500 from the Atwater High School Falcon Band Boosters will be forced to pay it all back, a Merced County judge ruled on Monday.
Cindy Hopkins, 38, admitted to taking the money when she served as the booster club's treasurer in 2011. Atwater High School band students raised the money through fund-raisers such as selling pizza and candy, according to band director Norm Caulkins.
Hopkins sat quietly in court Monday at her restitution hearing, as three witnesses detailed how they noticed discrepancies in the booster's funds.
David Lewandowski, who served as the booster club's president at the time, said he was tipped off something was wrong when he got a phone call in May 2011 from the bank.
A $1,300 check the booster club had made for uniform cleaning had bounced. "I was like, 'no way, we have 10 grand in the account,'" Lewandowski said. "For the check to bounce seemed odd. It took the wind out of me."
Lewandowski called a meeting with other booster club members and they began investigating the group's financial statements. "What we discovered was the deposits weren't being made," Lewandowski said. "We would see small deposits it was the checks being deposited, but the cash wasn't."
The booster club members called Richard St. Marie, a brother of one of the members who is the Merced County Sheriff Department's director of administrative services.
St. Marie analyzed the groups's financial documents for the year, including bank statements, copies of checks, envelopes containing donation amounts and receipts for each donation.
"I went back and tried to figure out where there was a discrepancy," St. Marie testified Monday. "Halfway through the year, I noticed there was no cash deposits. I saw over a period of time, checks were being deposited, but no cash."
It was determined that Hopkins embezzled $9,449.56, which Judge Ronald Hansen ordered her to pay back by June 3, 2014 one year from the day she entered her no contest plea.
Hopkins had very little comment following the judge's ruling Monday, other than to express her remorse. "I do feel bad about the whole situation," Hopkins said. "It's not like I don't have any remorse at all. I feel bad for the students."
Hopkins, who has a 17-year-old son in the school's band, would not elaborate on why she took the money.
John Garcia, the Merced attorney representing Hopkins, said his client will take full responsibility for paying back the money.
"I don't have any doubt she'll do that," Garcia said. "I'm not at leisure to say what motivated my client, but I do feel her remorse from the beginning."
The booster members celebrated the decision Monday, but said Hopkins should have to serve jail time for the crime.
"I don't think it's enough. I think when you steal from kids or hurt kids, it's never enough," said Mariza Ponce, vice president of fund raising. "With this situation, she is paying back the money, but I'd like to see some jail time and a written letter of apology to the students."
Deputy District Attorney Matthew Serratto called the judge's ruling "the right decision," but supported some jail time as part of Hopkins' sentencing.
"It's been a long road for the band boosters, and they had to make changes and sacrifice," Serratto said. "You take that amount of money from a group that's vulnerable, and it affects kids' lives and education."
Serratto said the judge will decide whether jail time or community service is necessary at the June 2014 sentencing hearing. Depending on how much money she's paid back, the judge could reduce Hopkins' original charge of felony embezzlement to a misdemeanor.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.