By MICHAEL P. RELLAHAN
WEST CHESTER - A bookkeeper who stole $183,000 from an organic food store was sentenced to state prison Thursday.
Based in part on the consent of Clifford "Terry" Brett, co-founder and president of Kimberton Whole Foods, Kristina Keefer of Pottstown will be allowed to serve her 18- to 36-month sentence for theft and credit card fraud at Chester County Prison instead of at a state prison.
Under a plea agreement accepted by Common Pleas Judge Howard F. Riley Jr., Keefer, 46, will also be granted work release as soon as the prison warden allows so she can begin paying back the money she stole from the company where she had worked several years as a bookkeeper.
In accepting the plea bargain from Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Cox-Shaw and defense attorney Richard Q. Hark of Philadelphia, Riley had a stern warning for Keefer, who he said was getting a break.
"If there 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 the two attorneys had advised him that the arrangement to serve time in county prison had been made because of circumstances surrounding Keefer's teenage children and her husband, who was recently hospitalized.
Cox-Shaw confirmed the arrangement had been made partially at the behest of Brett, who founded the 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.
Staying close to her family also gives Keefer the opportunity to continue working her clerical job at Amici Inc. in Spring City to earn money to pay back Kimberton Whole Foods.
The case began in March 2008 when Brett told East Pikeland police that Keefer had been embezzling money from the business for about three years before the thefts were discovered and she was fired.
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 beyond what his employees actually made. An outside auditing firm then found irregularities that were traced back to Keefer.
She was 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 of this year.
Police records show 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 herself and her sister, and
- filing for medical and daycare payments for the two when they did not deserve them.
Brett told police investigators that Keefer had, without his knowledge or authorization, opened a credit card account for herself in Kimberton's name. She then used the credit card to make personal purchases at retail stores, gas stations, pharmacies, gifts shops and hotels that together exceeded $75,000, he said.
When the credit card payments came due, Keefer would 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, and Keefer - who was accompanied by family members - did not offer an apology for her crimes.
She is to begin serving her sentence July 1.