Citing it was too lenient and there were no criteria or time schedule in place for the defendant to make restitution repayment, on Monday, Clay Superior Court Judge Blaine Akers turned down a recently negotiated plea agreement on behalf of Sonya M. Stroud, 40, Brazil.
After asking both the prosecution and the defense attorneys if there were any amendments or changes to be made to the negotiated plea agreement, Akers announced his decision to a stunned audience, which included the alleged victim as well as supporters of the defendant.
"I'm not going to accept this plea agreement," Akers said, and added that after reviewing the probable cause report in this case, he felt the magnitude of the criminal behavior and the impact upon the community was underestimated.
According to paperwork filed with the prosecutor's office, Stroud allegedly exerted "unauthorized control" over company checks used to repay expenses incurred by over-the-road truckers without the permission or knowledge of her employer.
Apparently the checks were made out to fictitious names and Stroud allegedly signed and cashed the checks as if she were that person at an area truck stop.
Stroud would then allegedly false enter the transactions in the company's books as if they were a legitimate expense.
Since none of the "comp" checks could be written for an amount greater then $3,000, authorities estimated it would take at least 100 or more checks to total the amount of missing funds.
Akers said each of these separate incidents, which allegedly date back to January 2004, could potentially be a forgery charge. He also pointed out, some of the transactions could not be charged due to the statute of limitations, the total of missing funds was close to $500,000.
On Jan. 3, Stroud was booked into the Clay County Justice Center after the Brazil City Police Department concluded a six-month investigation. She was charged with one class C felony forgery and five class D felony charges of theft.
On April 6, as part of a negotiated plea agreement with the Clay County Prosecutor's Office, Stroud admitted on the stand to what she called a "shopping addiction" as the reason for acquiring the trucking firm's money, very little of which she said was put in bank accounts.
As part of the negotiated plea agreement, Stroud agreed to plead guilty to three counts of class D theft in exchange the prosecutor's office would drop the remaining two charges of theft and one forgery charge.
The recommended sentence was for three consecutive three-year sentences (a total of nine years), of which six years would be suspended from serving, but be placed on probation. According to documentation, the prosecutor and defense attorney would then argue in court whether the remaining three years would be executed in prison, served on home detention or suspended entirely.
If the negotiated plea agreement was accepted, the recommended maximum sentence Akers could have sentenced Stroud to would be three years in prison and, with good time credit available, she would serve no more than 18 months actual jail time.
Although, according to the Clay County Prosecutor's Office, the alleged victim in the case had previously approved of the terms of the negotiated plea agreement presented to the court, the judge didn't.
"A local business has taken a serious hit," Akers said. "They've had to take actions to stay afloat, which potentially led to the reduction of employees."
Abiding by trial rules and Indiana case law, Stroud was allowed to withdraw her previous guilty plea after Akers denied the plea agreement.
Akers, who is unable to comment on a pending legal case, set the matter for jury trial on Aug. 24 and remanded her back into the custody of the Clay County Justice Center to await further court proceedings.
According to Indiana Code 35-35-1-4(d): A plea of guilty, or guilty but mentally ill at the time of the crime, which is not accepted by the court or is withdrawn shall not be admissible as evidence in any criminal, civil or administrative proceeding. Statements made by a defendant at a guilty plea hearing which established the factual basis for that plea are no more admissible than the fact that the defendant pled guilty.
In simpler terms, prior statements set forth in plea hearings cannot be used against a defendant if the plea agreement is denied for whatever reason by a judge. The information is inadmissible in court/trial proceedings.
However, evidentiary/admission statements given to police officers during the course of an investigation can be admissible in a jury trial.
Although both sides are virtually back to square one, the prosecution and the defense attorneys can continue to negotiate the terms of another plea agreement to present to the court up until the scheduled jury trial.