Last week’s victory for the District Attorney in the Laytonville embezzlement case has morphed into a showcase trial, with trophies and medals due everyone involved, including Sheriff Tom Allman and Detective Luis Espinoza. Amid all the confetti and champagne bubbles, cake crumbs and compliments, it was all too easy to suppose the case had been in the bag from the get-go.
But in fact, the trial had been won — and barely, at that — only by determined persistence on the part of prosecutor David Eyster and his hard working crew featuring Chief Investigator Kevin Bailey, Deputy Chief Andrew Alvarado and Detective Luis Espinoza of the Sheriff's Department.
Fact is, defense counsel Justin Petersen had his back to the wall on this one.
“I had no choice but to go to trial,” Petersen said as the deputies were leading his client out of the courthouse. “My client had nothing to lose. ‘Plead to the sheet’ [take it or leave it] was the only offer we were given.”
Obviously, it seems, DA Eyster wanted to make the kind of statement to the community that can only be accomplished through a high-publicity trial. The only trouble being when somebody has nothing to lose, they put up a heck of a fight — especially when they have a lawyer as accomplished as Mr. Petersen. And this kind of case was right down his meticulous, painstakingly thorough, alley.
The evidence against Christine Kelsay, 35, of Willits (Brooktrails) was complicated. It involved complex accounting procedures and technically advanced software systems. There is no easy way to explain it and attempting to do so would turn this report into a lengthy and tedious techno-syllabus. Also, the thief was really smart.
Ms. Kelsay hid her tracks so well in this complexity of technology, that for more than seven years even those with the business acumen to thoroughly understand the systems, found her out by the merest chance — and they had been looking, looking hard, for many years, because they knew something was wrong, desperately wrong. The business was bleeding money, bleeding internally, and it was getting progressively worse.
When Kelsay’s long-time friend and co-worker, Abbe Arkelian, spotted the first clue as to what was going on, a follow-up involving other investigators, chiefly Detective Espinoza, showed a paper trail with the defendant’s electronic “fingerprints” on it. That is, anything coming from her computer terminal had her initials. It seemed conclusively incriminating as these documents were matched up with the missing amounts. But shortly after Petersen put Kelsay on the stand, the jurors started lifting their eyebrows.
Petersen: “Did anyone else have access to your computer?”
Kelsay: “Anyone who came into the back office could have used it.”
Petersen: “But wasn’t the office locked when nobody was there?”
Kelsay: “Not often. Rarely, in fact. You had to pull the handle up to lock it and nobody ever did. Not usually, anyway.”
Petersen: “But wouldn’t they have to know your password and user name?”
Petersen: “Who, besides yourself, knew it — wait, strike that. Let me ask you this: How did you get your password and user name?”
Kelsay: “From Abbe.”
Petersen: “Ms. Arkelian? She gave it to you?”
Kelsay: “She assigned me one.”
Petersen: “So she would have known it. Who else?”
Kelsay: “I don’t know.”
Some of the thefts were made while Ms. Arkelain was out on maternity leave, or otherwise out of the office. So it would seem she wasn’t the one doing it, unless…
Petersen: “Could anyone access your computer from someplace else?”
Kelsay: “Yes, they could do it from Hawaii or Montana if they wanted to.”
The owner of the prosperous Laytonville store, Mr. Braught, had properties in both those locations, and Kelsay said that he used an app called GoToMyPC.com to check in with the store while he was on vacation.
Petersen: “Did Ms. Arkelian have that ability as well?”
Kelsay: “Yes, she did. She used it when she was on maternity leave.”
The burden of proof was on Eyster to convince the jury that Kelsay and been engaged in a major and ongoing diversion of store income to herself, and he had to do it beyond a reasonable doubt.
All Mr. Petersen had to do was sow a doubt in a single juror’s mind. And during the first day of defense, he did that remarkably well. Every point the prosecution had brought up defense attorney Petersen challenged, and challenged plausibly. It was grueling work for Ms. Kelsay to explain away her thefts but she proved formidably good at it.
Not only did she assert that at least three known people and maybe others knew her (Ms. Kelsay’s) computer password and user name, and that at least two of them could access her terminal by phone, but she seemed to imply that some of those who had testified against her were being vindictive for some reason she could never specify. She never came right out and said her employer or supervisor framed her, but she certainly implied as much.
A number of managers had access to the safe. As they brought large bills to the safe from the cash registers, they would take small bills and change back to replenish the tills. The large bills were “dropped” into the bottom of the safe through a slot, and only Arkelian and Kelsay (when Arkelian was absent) had access to the bottom of the safe. The large bill drops were accompanied by a “drop-sheet” which was the readout from the till, wrapped round the bundle of bills and held in place with a rubber band. The drop sheets for the stolen bundles were all missing, except one, which was found by Detective Espinoza at Kelsay’s house when a search warrant was served.
As for this damning piece of physical evidence, the drop sheet (a readout from a cashier’s till in the amount of $900), defense made the case that it could have been planted there when her desk was cleaned out by Mr. Braught, and a box of her things was delivered by someone else to her house. Without saying so, she suggested the drop-sheet had been planted in that box for Espinoza to find when he searched.
The next project defense embarked on was to establish that Christine Kelsay made her extra money by growing and trimming marijuana. Prosecution had established that there was no sign of any such activity at her house in Brooktrails, and she said that was because she was in a custody battle with the father of her son, and that the father just happened to be brother-in-law to Chief Investigator Kevin Bailey. Such was her dread of the intrepid Bailey, she did all her marijuana growing and trimming at her parents’ house in Laytonville.
Then there were long hours of testimony devoted to minimizing Kelsay’s reputed lifestyle extravagancies — the trips to Disneyland, the great seats at the World Series, flights to Pittsburg and tickets for Steelers games, thousands spent on lawyers for the custody battle, the houseful of new clothes and toys for the kids, the several bank accounts Kelsay shared with others, the contents of her safe deposit box; and, last but hardly least, the disparity between her income and her debts.
The discrepancies between income and the high life were all explained away — pretty convincingly, we hasten to say — as pretty much the American way. Yes, she was living way beyond her means, sinking deeper and deeper in debt, but who isn’t? The jurors were all no doubt intimately familiar with a great many people who live beyond their means. Ms. Kelsay put the trip to the Steelers’ game on her credit card and her father-in-law later paid her back. She spent the paid back money on the World Series tickets. The clothes with price tags still on them were there because the girl had just had a birthday. She and her mister needed new cars because the old ones were worn out. The money for the lawyers had been borrowed. On and on. There was an answer for everything, and one could see the deft hand of the meticulous Mr. Petersen in prepping his client to address each item calmly and completely.
Witnesses — Kelsay’s father and husband — were waiting in the hall to corroborate this testimony, and again the plucky team of Alvarado and Bailey were dispatched on urgent missions. As the first day of defense ended, it was beginning to look like the siege of Khe Sanh. Ms. Kelsay was dug-in like the Cong in their hollowed-out mountain, and Eyster was calling up the B-52s. After the jurors left Eyster apologized to Judge Moorman that, considering the defendant’s stubborn denials, it would be impossible not to recall rebuttal witnesses. The trial would go on all week, in spite of promises for a timely adjournment.
On cross examination the next day, DA Eyster showcased his daunting skills as a lawyer. Without ever losing his equanimity, the famously passionate prosecutor patiently gathered the refuting documents his investigative crew had hustled-up and, starting at the beginning, went through every single item the defendant had denied or attempted to explain away. And it was in this manner that the DA thoroughly unraveled all the tangles Ms. Kelsay had attempted to make of his case against her. In the end, Ms. K had simply out-complicated herself with far too many implausible explanations for her years of theft.
The way the amounts stolen so closely resembled the amounts deposited in Kelsay’s accounts — all within a day or two of the thefts — combined with the lack of documentation for the breezy explanation of pot trimming, loans taken out, marijuana sold, lawyers paid off — all the details finally snared Ms. Kelsay — not that she ever gave in. Oh, no. She denied it all to the very end. The amounts stolen also showed more audacity each month; starting out with a few hundred, then climbing into the thousands, then up to $20,000, then over $30,000, then over $70,000, finally over $100,000 in the last month, December of 2014.
DA Eyster did such a good job on cross examination it was perhaps superfluous for him to recall his witnesses, but he did so and again, especially the highly credible Abbe Arkelian, who was so emotional on the stand she broke down and wept at recalling how she found her old friend to be the culprit. And when her old friend accused her of being the thief, Ms. Arkelian again broke down.
By the end of the day Thursday it was over, and although Mr. Petersen’s closing brought tears to the eyes of some of his father’s old friends, to see how far he’d come as a lawyer, the evidence against his client was just too much to overcome with the famed Petersen family eloquence. It was a trial both sides could take pride in, however, because it was bravely fought by both sides, and a close contest is always more thrilling to watch than — as the DA may well have anticipated — a cake walk.
Ms. Kelsay’s days of wine and roses are over. She’s facing five years in prison and an impossible amount of money to pay in restitution. With her bail set at $2 million, she’ll probably never see financial daylight again. But, hey, ain’t that the American way? Grab all you can, while you can, and if you get caught, well… c’est le vie!