By MICHAEL P. RELLAHAN, Journal Register News Service
WEST CHESTER - A Pottstown woman who stole more than $180,000 from one of the region's leading organic food stores was sentenced to a state prison term Thursday on charges of theft and credit card fraud.
But based in part on the consent of the co-founder and president of Kimberton Whole Foods - Clifford "Terry" Brett - the former employee, Kristina Keefer, will be allowed to serve her 18-to-36 months behind bars at the Chester County Prison instead of a state correctional institute.
Keefer, 46, will also be granted work release as soon as the prison warden deems her eligible, according to the plea agreement accepted by Chester County Court Judge Howard F. Riley Jr., so that she can begin paying back some of the $183,000 she stole from the company where she worked for several years as a trusted bookkeeper.
Riley, in accepting the plea bargain worked out between Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Cox-Shaw and defense attorney Richard Q. Hark of Philadelphia, however, had a stern warning for Keefer, who he said was getting "a break."
"If here is the slightest hiccup, you go to the state penitentiary," Riley told an emotional Keefer as he pronounced sentence. "I am not going to tolerate one iota of nonsense."
Riley said he had been told by the two attorneys that the arrangement had been made to allow her to serve her time in county prison because of circumstances surrounding her teenage children and her husband, who was recently hospitalized.
Cox-Shaw confirmed that the arrangement had been made partially at the best of Brett, who founded the popular natural foods store in East Pikeland in 1994 after operating a dairy at the Seven Stars Farm since the 1980s. The firm now has four stores in Chester, Berks, and Bucks counties.
Allowing her to remain in the county keeps her close to her children, and giving her the opportunity to continue working at her clerical job at Amici Inc. in Spring City allows her to earn money to pay back Kimberton Whole Foods.
The case began in March 2008 when Brett contacted East Pikeland police and told them he had discovered that Keefer, who had recently been fired from her position at the store chain, had been embezzling money from the business for about three years prior.
He said he noticed problems when Keefer filed for unemployment compensation after her termination, and reported to authorities that her quarterly earnings were $30,000, a sum he knew none of his employees made. He called in an outside auditing firm, and it found a number of irregularities that were traced back to Keefer.
She was ultimately charged in April 2008 with theft by failure to make required disposition of funds, access device fraud, and theft by deception. She pleaded guilty to the charges in April.
Police records show that Keefer had been "padding" payroll checks for herself and other family members who worked for the chain, issuing extra paychecks for herself and a sister, submitting fraudulent vacation paychecks for her and her sister, and filing for medical and daycare payments for the two when they did not deserve them.
Brett also told police investigators that Keefer had, without his knowledge or authorization, opened up a credit card account for herself in Kimberton's name. She used the credit card to make all sorts of personal purchases at retail stores, gas stations, pharmacies, gifts shops, and hotels. A total of these purchases exceeded $75,000, he said.
When the credit card payments came due, Keefer would simply prepare an automatic withdrawal from the company's account and assign it to a fictitious vendor. She could write checks without Brett's approval by using a signature stamp he had given her.
No one from Kimberton Whole Foods attended the hearing, an Keefer - who was accompanied by family members - did not offer an apology for her crimes. She will begin serving her sentence on July 1.