A former Winslow woman pleaded guilty Tuesday to embezzling thousands of dollars from a school sports team and a sports boosters’ club, while also stealing state welfare benefits.
Wendi R. Willette, also known as Wendi Thompson, 41, now of Whitefield, N.H., stood at a podium with her hands clasped behind her back and responded “guilty” when Justice Andrew Horton asked for her pleas in Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta.
Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said the people involved with the sports teams told her they placed a lot of trust in Willette and felt betrayed.
“The money was to be used for the kids,” Maloney said. “Parents came together to raise money for the kids so they could have a wrestling team and a field hockey team. What shocked them the most was that she was willing to take the money from the kids.”
Under a proposed sentence agreed to by the prosecutors and defense attorney, Willette faces up to four years in prison with all but 12 to 18 months suspended and three years of probation. She remains free pending sentencing, which has been scheduled for June 22.
Her attorney, Randy Robinson, had requested a sentencing date in late June or early July because “she home-schools one of her children, and she also has some health issues she needs to address before she starts incarceration.”
Robinson told the judge that while his client disputed some of the claims made by the state, “she does not deny that there was wrongdoing,” and he believed she would likely be convicted.
Under a plea deal, Willette also will have to pay restitution of more than $60,000 to the state and $8,425 to the Winslow Wrestling Sports Boosters Club, where she was the treasurer, as well as $300 for the China Girls’ Field Hockey Team, where she was a coach.
Maloney, who pursued the thefts from the school club and team, and Assistant Attorney General Darcy Mitchell, who prosecuted Willette on the state welfare theft and forgery charges, both said Robinson could argue for less than the 18 months of jail time if all the restitution is paid before Willette starts her prison term.
After the hearing Maloney said that Willette had made a $5,000 restitution payment on Feb. 3 and that all that money will be turned over shortly to the wrestling boosters. After the hearing, Robinson said Willette was able to repay the $5,000 because she sold some items and because she saved some money by taking in a roommate.
Maloney also said that under an agreement, Willette is to pay $300 to the field hockey team by March 7.
Both Maloney and Robinson said later that Willette indicated she had a written apology, but that was not brought up during the hearing Tuesday.
Robinson told the judge that Willette’s partner expects a settlement in a lawsuit he is pursuing. If that comes through as anticipated, Robinson said the restitution would be paid in full.
Maloney said the people involved with the sports teams were contacted about Tuesday’s plea and initially did not wish to be at the hearing although one representative was there.
“I did meet personally with the victims at the fire station in Winslow,” Maloney told Horton. “I was able to get a good sense of the harm they’ve been through.”
Maloney said the victims agreed with the proposed sentence because Willette is taking responsibility for the crimes, they need the money repaid to continue the programs and she will serve jail time.
Willette had previously been indicted on three counts of theft by deception, one count of aggravated forgery and five counts of unsworn falsification in connection with the state fraud. She was also previously indicted on three charges of theft — stealing more than $10,000 from the Winslow Wrestling Booster Club between Sept. 1, 2010, and July 31, 2013, and of stealing $300 from the China Girls Field Hockey Team Sept. 1-17, 2013.
On Tuesday, one count of theft by deception was dismissed.
According to the indictments, Willette received money from food stamps and from MaineCare and the State Supplement Program between Dec. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2013. In her applications, she indicated she and her two sons were the only occupants of her China Road Home and she had no income other than Social Security disability payments.
The indictment said Willette intentionally failed to disclose that her husband was living at the home and contributing financially to the household. It also said she filed a false 2011 property tax bill with the state on March 6, 2012.
In court on Tuesday, Mitchell said some of the fraud was uncovered after Willette Thompson’s then-husband, Paul Willette, learned that she was receiving state benefits.
Mitchell said the husband told officials in September 2013 that he had been living with the family in the China Road home, was steadily employed as a truck driver for a food distribution firm, that he never made less than $55,000 a year and that the money went into a joint account.
Mitchell said records show that in June 2007 the couple purchased property on China Road, built a $70,000 mobile home and two years later obtained a town permit to install a deck and a pool.
At the same time, Mitchell said, Willette regularly filled out applications for state aid saying that she and her two children lived alone, received no support from her husband and had a zero balance in her bank account.
Willette applied for and received $840 from Maine State Housing’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and at one point sought assistance with paying a 2011 property tax bill which she altered to remove her husband’s name, Mitchell told the judge.
Mitchell said state benefit overpayments to Willette were calculated at $41,989 for Department of Health & Human Services assistance in the form of food stamps and MaineCare, $840 for Maine State Housing and $18,456 in Supplemental Security Income.