Kimberly Sziraki pleads no contest in $1.6 million embezzlement case

Embezzlement defendant Kimberly Sziraki pleaded no contest to four felony counts of embezzlement and theft Friday in Merced County Superior Court.

She'd been charged with stealing $1.6 million from a Merced nut processing plant.

As part of the plea agreement with prosecutors from the Merced County District Attorney's Office, Sziraki will be sentenced to between five and eight years in prison. She's scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Ronald Hansen on July 23.

The remaining 13 counts Sziraki, 45, was facing were dismissed as part of the agreement.

Prosecutors said Sziraki embezzled the $1.6 million between 2005 and 2008 from Central Valley Processing Acquisition Corp., a nut processing plant in Merced County where she worked as a manager. Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini said the lion's share of the money was spent on online gambling.

She's married to Merced County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Sziraki. Prosecutors have said there's no evidence he was aware of the crimes.

Before the plea deal, Sziraki was facing a maximum of 17 years in prison.

Bacciarini said he'll push for Sziraki to serve a maximum sentence of eight years in prison. None of the stolen money has been recovered. "The damage in this case went beyond just the taking of the money," Bacciarini said. "We're talking about putting a business, its suppliers and employees in peril. It did a lot of damage to that company."

John Garcia, Sziraki's attorney, said he'll urge Hansen to sentence his client to the minimum term, based on her otherwise clean criminal record and the fact she cooperated with investigators and admitted her crimes. Garcia said his client was in the grips of alcoholism, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a number of "emotional and psychological conditions" when the crimes happened.

"We plan on bringing an expert opinion at the time of sentencing with actual medical reports and doctors reports, psychological and otherwise, that will verify it," Garcia said.

Still, Garcia acknowledged that the outcome for his client could have been worse, especially if she had gone to trial facing all 17 counts. "Under the plea arrangement, we were able to at least manage and control the amount of years she would get," Garcia said. "We thought this was the most prudent way to go with this case."

Even though many of the counts were dismissed, Sziraki will probably be ordered to pay total restitution costs to the nut processor. The Merced County Office of Probation will submit a restitution report to Hansen before sentencing.

Ken Spagnola, owner of Central Valley Processing Acquisition, said he's pleased with the resolution of the case. He hopes Sziraki will be sentenced to the maximum eight years in prison. "I'm glad things turned out the way they did," Spagnola said. "I was really nervous (prosecutors) were going to let her get off for nothing. She's done a horrible amount of damage. I feel she should pay for what she's done."

Merced County has seen several high-profile embezzlement cases in recent years.

In October, former Los Banos city employee Mary Ann Jones was sentenced to eight years in prison for stealing more than $1.7 million in cash from city coffers.

In another case, Stockton resident Ajay Chandra was sentenced to four years, four months in prison for stealing $1.1 million from Central Valley Concrete and Trucking, where he worked as CFO.

Bacciarini said prosecutors considered the resolution of similar cases in making the plea agreement with Sziraki's attorney. "We've got to be consistent, to punish similar conduct a similar way," Bacciarini said.

Sziraki also pleaded to an enhancement as part of the agreement, admitting to stealing an amount above $500,000.

She remains free on bail and isn't expected to be taken into custody until her July 23 sentencing.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.