Crime

Former Wake register of deeds charged with embezzling $900,000

The former Wake County register of deeds and three others from the office have been accused of embezzling more than $1.13 million over the past six years.

The Wake County grand jury handed up indictments Tuesday in a probe into what happened to $2.3 million over a nine-year period.

Laura Riddick, who ran the office for nearly two decades, is charged with six felony counts of embezzlement involving a total of $926,615 over more than six years.

Former employees Troy Ellis, Veronica Gearon and Murray M. Parker also face embezzlement charges.

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“These charges have been brought at the end of a lengthy, detailed investigation,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said – adding, when asked about the discrepancy between the $2.3 million discovered missing and the amount listed in the indictments, that she does not expect more people to be charged. “If additional evidence comes to light we will review that at that time.”

Gearon was accused of embezzling $80,950 from 2011 to 2016. Gearon earned a salary of $56,000 before being fired on Dec. 7, according to Luther Snyder, deputy register of deeds. Officials in the Register of Deeds office said she was fired after the district attorney told them Gearon was a suspect in the case.

“You can’t have anyone working here that’s been indicted under any circumstances,” Snyder said on Tuesday.

Parker, who worked in the office from 1997 to 2013, was accused of embezzling $74,067 during the last three years of employment there. Parker, who became assistant deputy register of deeds, had a salary of $79,605.

Ellis, who was fired earlier this year after joining the office in 2010, was accused of one count of embezzling $50,000. Ellis, a technician, acknowledged to his supervisor several days after an SBI investigation began that he had taken some money, according to a letter written by Snyder ending Ellis’ employment. The grand jury indictment accuses Ellis of taking the money between Dec. 5, 2015, and Feb. 20, 2017.

Riddick, a Republican, held the office from 1996 until her resignation earlier this year at the start of the investigation. She was elected to six terms in all. Indictments allege she took the money between August 2010 and January 2017.

On Tuesday, the state also placed a $700,000 property bond on Riddick’s home at 1920 Stannard Trail near Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh as part of a pretrial release, according to court officials.

The indictments don’t address how the money was taken or how it was used.

Efforts to reach attorneys for the accused were unsuccessful.

The State Bureau of Investigation probe began in March after an internal audit ordered on Feb. 3 by top Wake County officials revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars missing.

By the end of the probe, investigators determined that at least $2.3 million could not be accounted for in an office that takes in about $14 million a year, a large portion of which is cash.

The Register of Deeds office records legal documents and maps, issues marriage licenses and vital records certificates, certifies documents and administers notary-public oaths.

The audit looked at all the transactions in the Register of Deeds office during the 10-year period. What might account for some of the missing money, Freeman has said, is instances in which clerks decided someone was indigent, or too poor to pay fees, and issued a birth certificate or marriage license without noting the decision on records maintained through the years. The audit also might not account for cashier errors, Freeman said.

Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, declined to comment on the specific charges but said she’s encouraged that the investigation is progressing.

“We have to allow the judicial process to run its course, but these indictments are a start at justice for all of us whose trust was betrayed,” Holmes said.

Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake Republican Party, said the charges are serious breaches of the public trust and, if proven true, should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

“Further, we are simply devastated by the news that Laura Riddick may have been involved,” Hellwig said in a statement. “We placed our faith and trust in her, and she was beloved by Republicans throughout our county. We are heartbroken.”

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, tweeted that the news about Riddick is “heartbreaking.”

“Many @WakeCountyGOP people worked to elect her and fully trusted her,” Woodhouse tweeted. “Simply a tragedy.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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