Longtime Snowmass employee is ‘prime suspect’ in $27K embezzlement case
Police investigation going on nearly 2 years in financial crime
The alleged ringleader of a scheme to embezzle at least $27,000 from a Snowmass Village condominium complex remains at large and is likely living outside the country, said a police official investigating the case.
Meanwhile, the first of three defendants with pending cases in Pitkin County District Court for allegedly receiving the embezzled funds through fake payroll checks — or “ghost checks” — was sentenced to probation a week ago after accepting a plea deal with the District Attorney’s Office.
“Our prime suspect is out of the country, and she’s the one that everybody’s pointing fingers at,” Snowmass Village Police Sgt. Dave Heivly, who is working the case, said late last week. “We suspect (she and a co-defendant) are in Peru.”
The scheme was first reported to Snowmass Village police nearly two years ago by the general manager of The Crestwood condominiums, but cases involving financial crimes involve subpoenas for bank records and take time to investigate, Heivly said.
“It took a long time to get any traction with it,” he said.
Crestwood General Manager Robert Sinko told Heivly in October 2019 that former housekeeping manager Selene Avitia — who was fired Oct. 1, 2019 — had been issuing payroll checks to former employees then endorsing them over to herself and others, according to the affidavit. Avitia also allegedly utilized fake direct deposit forms to receive some of the funds.
In addition to Avitia, defendants include Lourdes Delgado Peregrino, Vicky Peregrino Perez, Erika Murillo and Carlos Ivan Mendoza, who each face a charge of felony theft.
Sinko said Thursday he wasn’t sure how long the payroll check scheme lasted. Court documents indicate that Avitia was first hired at The Crestwood in 1990 and hired and rehired over the years until she became housekeeping manager in 2008.
The total amount allegedly stolen by five defendants, including Avitia, was $27,321, according to an arrest warrant for Peregrino filed in Pitkin County District Court. Heivly, however, said he thinks the scheme involved more money, and the affidavit tends to back that up.
“I suspect there was more, but I don’t want to put a dollar amount on it,” he said.
Sinko said the condominium complex hired an outside firm to conduct an audit, but it was “inconclusive.” Nearly two years later, he said he still doesn’t know if more than $27,000 was stolen.
Some of the findings unearthed by the audit are quoted in Heivly’s arrest warrant affidavit, and they clearly indicate more than $27,000 was missing. The auditor looked at records from a bank account belonging to Avitia and Mendoza and another belonging to Peregrino, as well as payroll information from The Crestwood, according to the affidavit.
Twenty-four endorsed checks totaling nearly $40,000 were deposited into the Avitia/Mendoza account, while evidence surfaced indicating nearly $7,500 worth of endorsed checks went to Peregrino, the affidavit states. He also found evidence of “suspicious” cash deposits made to other accounts.
Heivly said he had solid evidence for the $27,000, and that’s what he included in the arrest warrants.
Staff attempted to notify management of the scheme in winter 2018, when someone left an anonymous note saying Avitia had been forging payroll checks and “to make sure that only current employees were getting paid,” according to the affidavit.
“Since the note was anonymous, Sinko reminded managers to pay closer attention to payroll,” the affidavit states.
Other honest employees were allegedly intimidated into silence.
A current manger at the complex told police that “she knew of six people working at the Crestwood with questionable immigration status who were threatened with immigration action by Selene because they knew what Selene was doing in regards to payroll,” Heivly wrote in the affidavit.
Peregrino pleaded guilty July 19 to felony criminal possession of a financial device and was sentenced to two years of supervised probation. Because she pleaded to a “deferred” felony, if she stays out of trouble for those two years, the felony conviction will be wiped from her record. She will have to pay back about $7,000 in restitution as part of the plea.
Murillo is scheduled to be arraigned in Pitkin County District Court in September, while Perez is set for trial, said Don Nottingham, deputy district attorney.
Avitia and Mendoza are probably in Peru, Heivly said Thursday.
“I have nothing that leads me to believe they’re coming back anytime soon,” he said.
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