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When trust is misplaced

Nicole Formosa
Summit Daily/Kristin SkvorcDetective George Hughes works on a case file Friday at his office in Breckenridge.
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SILVERTHORNE – When District Attorney Mark Hurlbert prosecutes an employee theft case, he generally isn’t pushing for the judge to lock up the defendant for any significant period of time.Instead, he focuses on winning a felony conviction, probation and restitution. Although prison time can be a possible punishment, even a county jail sentence more than 90 days is rare, Hurlbert said.”Our main goal in a lot of these cases is to get the victims paid pack,” Hurlbert said.Hurlbert’s 5th Judicial District office, which includes Eagle County, is currently prosecuting two cases in Summit County – one involving a repeat offender in Breckenridge, and the other is against David Lantz, a 47-year-old former Fairplay resident who is accused of taking more than $200,000 from his Silverthorne employer over a nearly three-year period.Lantz was hired as the accountant for Kaupas Water Labs in Silverthorne in June 2002. According to the arrest affidavit, Lantz allegedly began siphoning money about six months after he began working for the small company. He’s charged with taking approximately $230,000 by writing pre-signed checks to himself, using company credit cards to transfer money into personal accounts and making personal payments from the company’s bank accounts, according to court documents.Ed Kaupas, the business’ owner, discovered the accounting discrepancies when Lantz was on vacation, and immediately went to the police, documents said. Then-Silverthorne detective Mark Watson had Lantz arrested after a two-month investigation.In October, Lantz was charged with felony theft, felony forgery and obtaining a signature by deception, a misdemeanor.Cases like this one are not common, but they hit small businesses hard, Hurlbert said. ‘It starts off small’Judy Keith was the manager at Southwest Designs in Breckenridge when an employee allegedly stole $6,000 last year through illegal charge-backs to her credit card.Keith said the experience has taught her to be diligent about checking all references and completing thorough background checks on people she might be leaving the business with.”There isn’t anyone I really trust now,” Keith said.A judge sentenced Breckenridge resident Georgette Buchanan to six years in community corrections and ordered she pay restitution last April for the thefts. Buchanan had previously been convicted in February 2002 in Clear Creek County for defrauding a Georgetown business of more than $90,000.In October 2005, the Breckenridge Police Department served Buchanan with an arrest warrant for allegedly stealing approximately $40,000 between March 2004 and May 2005 from Breckenridge’s Norge Laundry and Main Street Management Company. Buchanan is lodged in the Summit County Jail. Her attorney, J.B. Katz, declined to comment on the pending case.’Here’s the checkbook’So, what drives employees to dip into the company coffers? Usually, the defendants in these cases are struggling to make ends meet, so they start stealing from their employer, and don’t realize how much they’re taking, Hurlbert said. Breckenridge detective George Hughes, who’s currently investigating a case involving a local business that lost at least $100,000 since an employee allegedly began taking money in 2001. “It seems like it starts off small, then (employees) see they can get away with it and it just grows, and grows and grows, especially if it goes on for a couple of years,” Hughes said.Hughes added that four felony fraud cases landed on his desk in the past year. He’s noticed a pattern among all the victims – too much trust. “The employers just gave too much authority to these employees. Basically, here’s the checkbook – we want you to run our company,” Hughes said.His advice to local business owners is to have audits done each year, that way if something is awry, it can be caught early. Also, use a system of checks and balances by not allowing one employee to handle all aspects of the financial side of the business, and always do a background check on those handling the money or financial transactions, Hughes recommended.Watson, who now works for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, agrees. When he was Silverthorne’s detective, he saw about a dozen employee theft cases per year, ranging from the clerk who swipes money from the cash register, to more significant thefts. Many thefts are not reported to police, especially if the amount taken is less than $500, because most of the large businesses in town have internal policies to deal with such situations, Watson said. The Kaupas Water case is the only felony employee theft Watson investigated in 2005. Because that investigation is continuing, he couldn’t comment specifically, but said the amount of money stolen will likely make it one of the bigger cases. “It’s very unfortunate,” Watson said. “The employer was probably a little too trusting of his employee.”Lantz declined to be interviewed for this story.Vail, Colorado


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