A bookkeeper who stole more than $100,000 over seven years from Southwest Middle School was sentenced to seven years in prison Friday.
Natalie Jean Jones was arrested in May 2015 after her principal noticed irregularities in the school’s accounting and called in internal auditors.
A six-month investigation by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office found that from 2007 to 2014, Jones embezzled $108,000 from the school meant for field trips, school supplies and extracurricular activities.
To avoid detection, Jones would write checks to vendors and record them in the school’s ledger, then cancel them and forge a new check to herself.
“This money was not stolen from a corporation, a bank or private company. It was money intended for the education of students,” Southwest Principal Todd Scheuerer said in a statement read by Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Stephanie Soliven.
Jones appeared in court at the Moore Justice Center in Viera on Friday morning and pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal. About 50 people, many Jones’ friends and family, filled the courtroom to capacity.
Through tears, Jones admitted she “lost my way” and “made some very bad decisions.”
“I would just like to say I’m ashamed of what I’ve done,” she said, and apologized to the students, staff and principal at Southwest. “This is something that I can never undo.”
Her attorney, family and close friends spoke of Jones’ trustworthiness volunteering at her church and working at a local construction company. Since her arrest, she’s paid back one-fifth of the money she stole from Southwest.
“No one here is perfect,” her son, Evan Jones, who attended Southwest at one point, said on the stand. “My mother acted in accordance with what she though was best for her family.”
Scheuerer said Jones would often tell her colleagues about her vacations to New York, annual passes to Disney and her son’s enrollment at a private college.
“What became devastating to the staff was the realization that all of these personal events came at the expense of Southwest students and teachers,” he said in his statement.
Her employer at Lowman Brothers Construction in Melbourne, John Lowman, said as office manager — which involves writing checks, issuing invoices and keeping the books — Jones is a “very trustworthy” model employee, and asked the judge to show mercy in his sentencing. Grand theft, a second-degree felony, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“I do believe in second chances,” he said.
But the prosecution requested that the punishment fit the crime, and asked that Jones serve seven years “for the seven years she committed the crime.”
The incident, Scheuerer said, has not only damaged employee morale but the community’s trust in the school.
“I would never expect someone to betray their own faculty and staff in this manner, not just one year, but consistently for seven years. Not just a few thousands dollars, but over $100,000,” he said in a statement.
Jones will also serve eight years’ probation, during which time she must repay the remaining $88,000 she stole.
Just a few years after her arrest, another bookkeeper, this time from Eau Gallie High, was accused of embezzling $170,000.
Since then, the school district has made moves to implement more surprise audits, provide more training to principals and is considering centralizing all school accounts under the district headquarters and contacting an armored car service.