Former teller gets two years of work release for theft | AspenTimes.com

Former teller gets two years of work release for theft

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A former bank teller convicted of pocketing deposits was sentenced to two years on a local work-release program Monday.

Susana Braunthal, 52, wept after hearing the news that she must spend the next two years in Pitkin County Jail to pay off $4,000 in restitution in the theft case. The sentencing marks the end of a nearly three-year investigation that began shortly after Braunthal accepted a job at Aspen’s Alpine Bank.

Braunthal was first charged with stealing from Alpine Bank in late 1999 after a fellow teller reported a shortage when counting her cash drawer. Police and bank management reviewed a video surveillance tape and, after repeated viewings, discovered a short segment that apparently showed Braunthal walking to the neighboring teller’s drawer and sticking her hand inside. However, the tape did not actually show her taking the money.

Braunthal’s case was sent to trial, but proceedings were called off in February 2000 when District Court Judge J.E. DeVilbiss ruled that the tape, seriously damaged after repeated viewings by police and bank officials, was inadmissible due to its “very degraded state.” Braunthal’s defense attorney also requested that testimony from her co-workers be excluded, claiming that their opinions were warped by watching the damaged tape.

DeVilbiss’ decision was reversed last year by the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled the taped evidence was, in fact, admissible, since it was not destroyed by “state action.” The ruling also stated that the district attorney’s office could use still photographs taken from the surveillance tape in late 1999, copied before the tape was too severely damaged.

Braunthal’s case returned to Pitkin County in mid-April for a three-day trial. She was convicted of felony theft.

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During the sentencing hearing, Assistant District Attorney Lawson Wills described Braunthal as “patently dishonest” – a woman who, despite two prior convictions of misdemeanor theft in California, would not admit that she could have committed the crime at Alpine Bank.

Wills cautioned the judge that Braunthal should not receive probation due to her failure to show remorse during the 2 1/2 years of proceedings. Wills said that Braunthal has never expressed “even one ounce of regret” that Janice Rust, the teller whose cash drawer came up short the night of the theft, was initially blamed for the crime.

“This is not a probationary case,” Wills said. “Given her attitude and her lack of remorse … I think it will reoccur.”

The prosecutor also pointed out that, though the Braunthals claim they are bankrupt, Susana Braunthal spent $1,300 on a plane ticket to return to Aspen for her sentencing hearing – a good chunk of the $4,000 she owes in restitution.

“What she has spent on plane tickets from here to Hawaii would probably pay the entire restitution,” Wills said.

Braunthal’s attorney, Fred Gannett, argued briefly on Braunthal’s behalf during the nearly hour-long hearing. Gannett said that, though Braunthal flunked a polygraph test taken after her arrest, her account of the crime had not changed in nearly three years of rehashing the evidence. She also refused to accept a plea bargain from prosecutors, Gannett said, even when it became evident that her trial would not return a favorable verdict.

Gannett also said that Braunthal wished to return to Hawaii where, once she secured employment, she would begin to pay restitution in monthly installments – $150 for the first three months and $250 each additional month.

Braunthal’s son, Mauricio, also spoke tearfully on his mother’s behalf Monday. He said he and his family, once the owners of a successful construction business, lost everything as a result of their mother’s legal problems – houses, cars and eventually the business itself. The family name was tarnished when Susana was wrongly accused, Mauricio said, and whatever money the business did make was automatically turned over for Gannett’s fees.

The Braunthals only moved to Hawaii, the family’s former home, so Susana’s husband could find work as an architect, Mauricio said. And the entire process – the conviction and the necessary move – has drastically changed the family’s opinion of the legal process, Mauricio said.

“I’ve lost all faith in the judicial system of the United States,” he said.

DeVilbiss told Braunthal that he believed she had received a fair shake during her lengthy legal battle. He then sentenced her to the work-release program, eight hours of community service and a few sessions with a mental health specialist.

“You’ve been convicted by a jury in a fair trial,” he said. “I haven’t lost my faith in the system.”