Former Berlin teacher facing prison for theft
(Feb. 22, 2013) A former Stephen Decatur Middle School teacher was sentenced to state prison after admitting Tuesday that she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Worcester County Teachers Association for gambling.
“I knew it was wrong,” 58-year-old Denise Inez Owens told Judge Dale Cathell in Circuit Court in Snow Hill after pleading guilty to one count of a theft scheme that continued from April 3, 2006 through March 25, 2009.
“I know why, gambling addiction,” Owens said.
She recalled “sitting up all night at a casino. You wait and you lose and you lose and you lose.”
Owens, who lived in Ocean Pines and taught special education students at the Berlin school, would lose and steal more money from the Teachers Association.
As the treasurer of that association from 2006-2009, she had full access to all its bank accounts and wrote numerous checks to herself and others. She also withdrew cash from the bank account.
The thefts were discovered after the Maryland State Education Association realized that the Worcester County Teachers Association had fallen into arrears in its state dues and confronted Owens, who resigned her position as treasurer and agreed to make restitution.
The money she had stolen, $433,784.52, was owed to the Maryland State Education Association and the National Education Association rather than the Worcester County Teachers Association.
Instead of notifying law enforcement about the crime, the teachers association’s attorneys in Annapolis and Owens agreed to have her begin paying restitution following a meeting on her 55th birthday, March 25, 2009, during which she confessed to stealing more than $400,000.
According to Assistant State’s Attorney Steve Rakow, a secret bank account was set up for her to make payments.
“It was agreed at that time that no law enforcement would be involved,” Rakow told the court.
According to written documents of the Worcester County Teachers Association, there would be no mention of the thefts to law enforcement “because of the effect on membership and the possible loss of members,” Rakow read.
The Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office had been “totally unaware of the thefts” until reading about them in a newspaper, Rakow said. “There was an apparent cover-up.”
Eventually, a former president of the teachers association came forward and gave information about the thefts to the State’s Attorney’s Office. Detectives with the Worcester County Bureau of Investigation arrested Owens in August 2012.
An investigation uncovered thousands of visits to Delaware casinos by Owens, Rakow said.
“She has a severe gambling problem,” said Rakow, who asked the judge for a 10-year sentence, with all suspended but five years, plus probation and restitution of $211,545.07, the amount she still owes.
Owens’ defense attorney, Robert Marvel, said Owens had been an educator for nine years in Virginia and 25 years in Worcester County, where she taught special education students and worked with at-risk students. She helped write a handbook about special education for county teachers. She was also involved in mentoring.
Marvel also said he could not say what caused the events, but a major influence was her gambling problem.
“She would [gamble] and pay the money back,” he said. “It was a continuing process.”
After her arrest, Owens “was still supported by educators in Worcester County,” but Judge Cathell clarified that and said it was the Worcester County Teachers Association, not the Worcester County Board of Education, that supported her.
Marvel asked for a sentence to be served in the Worcester County jail followed by probation and restitution. He also asked for work release.
“I’m not sure I would want to release her into the community,” Cathell said.
The sentencing was “not a joyous moment for me,” Cathell said, as he recalled that his aunt and his sister had been teachers. “I’m sorry I’m the judge who got this case.”
He then sentenced Owens to five years, with all but two years suspended, in prison. After her release from prison, she will be on supervised probation for three years, during which time she must make restitution of $211,545.07 to the National Union Fire Insurance Company, which handled the loss.
He could have sentenced her to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Cathell also asked about charges related to the cover-up by the Worcester County Teachers Association.
“We have not been able to proceed in that direction at this stage,” Rakow said.