Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Woman seeks reduced bond in Johnson City, Tennessee church theft case

A Bristol woman serving an eight-year prison sentence on a conviction of stealing more than $400,000 from a business where she worked in Shelby County asked a judge Monday to reduce her bond on a similar charge in Washington County.
Jessica Tramel, 34, is charged with theft over $60,000 for allegedly taking over $200,000 from Unaka Avenue Baptist Church, where she worked as a secretary. The job included handling financial transactions.
Tramel is accused of using a church credit card illegally between Jan. 1, 2009, and May 1, 2011. She came to possess the card after the former church treasurer, Russell Stover, gave it to her. She was supposed to have his name removed from the account and destroy the card.
Instead, according to court documents, Tramel is accused of using the card to make numerous purchases over the Internet from companies such as Amazon, Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy.
The card was also used locally to purchase manicures and spa services.
Currently Tramel is serving a sentence from the Shelby County conviction in the Johnson City Jail. On Monday, she told a judge that it will expire Oct. 18, which would allow her to post bond on the charge she faces here. According to court records, Tramel’s bond is $150,000.
The hearing Monday was to ask Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to reduce that amount to $25,000. Tramel testified she hopes to get out of jail while her case is pending to spend time with her husband and children.
Tramel’s attorney, Brad Sproles, based his argument for her release on her family ties to the community — her parents, husband and children live in Bristol — and an odd circumstance in her prior case that he says shows she can be trusted.
In that case, Tramel was denied probation and ordered to serve the sentence at a February 2004 hearing in Shelby County. Tramel was hired as an office worker for a jewelry store, but quickly became a trusted employee and began handling the owners’ personal and business finances.
That led to Tramel — then known as Jessica Trotter-Lawson — to begin stealing money from the store. Over a two-year period, Tramel took nearly $500,000 from the business, according to court records.
After being ordered to serve the full sentence, Tramel appealed and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the sentence and ruled Tramel should serve one year in prison and the rest of the sentence on probation.
That decision came one year after Tramel’s sentence began, so she was released.
But 16 months later, the state Supreme Court reversed the CCA’s decision and ordered Tramel back to prison. She had 11 days to report to jail in Memphis.
Part of Sproles’ argument for his client’s trustworthiness is that fact that she did report back to jail as ordered. Another thing in her favor, Sproles told the judge, is her ability to work with minimal supervision in the community.
The Johnson City Jail is a “work camp” for state female inmates and everyone housed there has a job on city property. Tramel testified she works at the city golf course doing lawn maintenance and trash pick-up.
It’s allowed her to halve her sentence. The inmates earn an extra day for each day they work.
When Tramel was arrested for the theft from the church here, she was on parole from the previous conviction. Officials revoked her parole because of the new charge.
Both Sproles and Assistant District Attorney General Ken Baldwin indicated the case will likely be resolved with a plea.
Instead of ruling on the bond reduction Monday, Blackwood reset the case for Oct. 11. He said if the case isn’t resolved by a plea by then, he would consider the motion to reduce bond.
Baldwin opposed any reduction in Tramel’s bond.

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