Crime

Former Wake register of deeds turns herself in to face embezzlement charges

The former Wake County register of deeds turned herself in to law enforcement officers on Wednesday, the day after she was accused of embezzling more than $900,000 from the office she presided over for two decades.

Laura Riddick walked into the Wake County Detention Center at about 7:30 a.m. with her husband Matthew Eisley, a former reporter, columnist and editor at The News & Observer, and her attorney Joe Zeszotarski. Eisley kissed Riddick before she was ushered off to have fingerprints and a mug shot made.

Shortly before 9 a.m., Riddick walked down an enclosed hallway separating her from the media cameras on the other side of glass windows, toward the magistrate behind another window. Wake County Magistrate J.D. Saferight read the charges to her, asked her if she understood them and posed a few more questions. Riddick answered his questions with, “Yes, sir.” She was taken back behind closed doors to be detained until bond was posted.

At 9:30 a.m., Riddick was released after posting bond.

The state 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.

121217-REGISTER-CCS001
The home of former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, at 1920 Stannard Trail, is seen on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, the day Riddick was indicted on six counts of embezzlement. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

A Wake grand jury handed up indictments against Riddick and three former Register of Deeds employees Tuesday in a probe into what happened to $2.3 million over a nine-year period.

MURRAY PARKER
Murray M. Parker in a booking mug on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. CCBI

Riddick, Troy Ellis, Veronica Gearon and Murray M. Parker are accused of embezzling more than $1.13 million over the past six years. Investigators haven’t been able to account for what happened to nearly $1.2 million of the missing money.

TROY ELLIS
Troy Ellis in a booking mug on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. CCBI

Riddick’s bank records, according to a search warrant unsealed late Wednesday, showed cash deposits totaling $875,365 between Aug. 4, 2010, and Jan. 31, 2017.

Riddick’s husband and other supporters waited for her in the detention center waiting area while the former Wake County elected official was detained. An officer emerged from where Riddick was waiting for bond to be posted and told Eisley: “She’s doing great. She’s fine.”

After being released, Riddick was greeted with hugs from Eisley and several supporters with him.

Both Riddick and Eisley declined to comment on the charges.

Zeszotarski, who makes it his practice not to discuss cases outside the courtroom, has also declined comment.

The allegations

Riddick, a 51-year-old Republican, served as the elected register of deeds from 1996 until her resignation earlier this year at the start of a State Bureau of Investigation probe. Indictments allege she took $926,615 between August 2010 and January 2017. At the time of her resignation, Riddick had an annual salary of $143,267.

Gearon, who was fired this month, is accused of embezzling $80,950 from 2011 to 2016. Ellis, who was fired earlier this year after joining the office in 2010, was accused of embezzling $50,000 between late 2015 and last February.

Parker worked in the office from 1997 to 2013 and is accused of embezzling $74,067 during his last three years of employment there. Parker turned himself in Wednesday; a magistrate imposed a $50,000 bond and required him to surrender his passport, according to his Raleigh-based attorney, James P. Little.

“Mr. Parker looks forward to appropriately resolving his pending charges,” Little said in a statement Wednesday.

The indictments don’t address how the money was taken, how it was used or whether the elected official and employees were in cahoots with each other.

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 SBI investigation 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 audit looked at all the transactions in the office during the 10-year period. What might account for some of the missing money, District Attorney Lorrin 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.

Numerous cash deposits

Search warrants unsealed Wednesday provide a glimpse of what investigators found as they searched bank accounts of the accused.

Parker’s bank records, according to the warrants, showed that at least $85,000 in cash was deposited in one of his accounts from June 5, 2008, to Jan. 8, 2013.

Records for Gearon’s accounts showed more than $51,000 in cash was deposited between April 1, 2013, and Jan. 31, 2017.

Special Agent T.H. Forsythe wrote that Gearon told investigators she obtained the cash from a friend, her mother and her son. Her son’s weekly paychecks were deposited into her account from April 3, 2013, to June 13, 2015, totaling $8,433.89. From July 4, 2014, to June 13, 2015, six checks totaling $943 were written from her son’s accounts and deposited into Gearon’s account, a period in which cash deposits also were being made. Gearon told investigators that her mother died in March 2016, but cash deposits continued after that, according to the warrant. “Gearon declined to provide the name of the friend, at which time she ended the interview,” Forsythe’s search warrant application states.

No search warrant was released on Wednesday for the Ellis case.

‘In the past’

Charles Gilliam, who was appointed in April as the new register of deeds, issued a statement on Tuesday, saying what had happened in the past would not be the future.

“Over several days in January 2017, some Register of Deeds staff members conducted an ad hoc audit and investigation of suspect transactions. Staff members determined that money was unaccounted for, calculated amounts missing, collected evidence, and presented a report to Wake County management at the end of January,” Gilliam said.

The subsequent investigation by county officials and SBI investigators, Gilliam noted, “confirmed that the gravamen of what was reported in January was correct.”

“If this ad hoc audit had not been initiated, money probably would still be walking out the courthouse door today,” Gilliam said. “What was done in the past is in the past. As long as I am here this past shall not be prologue.”

Staff Writers Thomasi McDonald and Paul A. Specht contributed to this report.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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