WAXAHACHIE — After almost four hours of deliberation spanning portions of two days, an Ellis County jury found former Ellis County court coordinator Deborah Jane Werkmeister guilty of theft by a public servant.
Werkmeister was on trial after she was found to steal more than $100,000 but less than $200,000 from county funds. The guilty verdict was reached Friday morning and punishment passed down late Friday afternoon, June 23 in the 443rd Judicial District Court.
Werkmeister was sentenced to 10 years in prison and given a $10,000 fine. The trial lasted two weeks.
Werkmeister served as the chief court clerk for the Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace. As the chief clerk, Werkmeister was responsible for scheduling the court docket and running the office. She served as a county employee from July 30, 2001 – Jan. 15, 2013.
According to the indictment issued by an Ellis County Grand Jury on May 27, 2015, Werkmeister unlawfully appropriated money from the county from May 1, 2009 – Dec. 31, 2012.
Online records from the District Clerk’s website stated that the Texas Rangers arrested Werkmeister on June 3, 2015. Werkmeister was arrested on an after indictment warrant.
Before closing arguments, Judge Cindy Ermatinger told the jury not to let bias and emotion guide them when they go to deliberate a verdict. Ermatinger added not to hold the decision made by Werkmeister not to testify against her.
Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones was the first to address the jury. Jones stated that the evidence showed Werkmeister was responsible for the theft and nobody else. He reminded the jury of the time Werkmeister was out for a medical procedure for several weeks. Jones showed records from that time that from the court that money was making it into the bank but when she returned to work funds were missing again.
“She was in charge of the money. She was the last person to touch it. You heard from witnesses testify stating that if (the books) didn’t balance we didn’t leave,” Jones said. “Her bank account shows she was depositing money into her account. The owner of this money is the county, which is the people. Did she have the right to take it? No.”
Jones continued, stating that evidence has shown that Werkmeister changed other people’s work, not to balance the books but to cover her tracks. He implored the jury to find Werkmeister guilty of this offense.
Werkmeister’s attorney Mark Griffith addressed the jury telling them the investigation into this incident was one-sided from the very start.
“The full force of the state of Texas and the United States government looked at one person. Don’t let them tell you it was a full and fair investigation. The investigation stopped when somebody said Debbie’s title is the chief clerk,” Griffith remarked. “Two different auditors looked at her books showing up unannounced and found no problem with the cash.”
Griffith said the investigators didn’t look at other members of the court’s office and didn’t look at their bank records. Continuing, Griffith told the court that various people in the office knew other usernames and passwords for several people. He stated that the documents showing that Werkmeister is responsible could have done by somebody else.
Griffith encouraged the members of the jury to evaluate all evidence carefully.
Assistant District Attorney Habon Muhammad followed Griffith. In her statement to the jury, Muhammad said Werkmeister is the not the sweet person that is being portrayed by the defense but is a thief.
Muhammad told the court that Werkmeister took advantage of the court’s credit card payment system reversing transactions. When questioned about the missing funds Muhammad stated that Werkmeister lied.
“Debra told investigators that her stepfather had left her $50,000,” Muhammad said. “When they asked her mom she (the mother) told them he (the stepfather) had less than $10,000 when he died.”
Muhammad told the court that Werkmeister said investigators that she was reversing credit card transactions because the books were not balancing.
In a recording Muhammad played for the court, Werkmeister tells investigators “I fudged accounts.” In addition to the recording, Muhammad showed the jury financial records indicating that Werkmeister appeared to be living above her means.
The jury went into deliberations on Thursday evening at 6:24 p.m. before sending a note out to the Ermatinger requesting to continue deliberations on Friday, which was granted. Jury deliberations continued at 8:30 a.m. on Friday and a guilty verdict was announced to the court at 11:52 a.m.
Upon the return of a guilty verdict by the jury the court entered into the punishment phase of the trial. Ermatinger gave the jury several options, which included 5-99 years in prison and fine not to exceed $10,000. Probation could also be granted if a sentence of 10 years or less was granted.
Before the jury adjourned both the state and defense called witnesses.
Jones called Jerry Atkinson to the stand to give testimony. Atkinson was a motorist that received a ticket in the county.
Jones asked Atkinson what the long-term effect of getting a ticket here in the county was. Atkinson told the court since he paid the ticket he has received calls from a law firm acting as a collection agent regularly. The law firm has told him that there is a warrant for his arrest because of the unpaid citation. Atkinson explained that he has had to call the court to several times to get the problem fixed.
Jones asked him what impression that it has given him of the county. Atkinson replied that if he is driving to San Antonio to visit his parents that he would drive 30 minutes out of the way to avoid the county and encourages others to do so as well.
Griffith told the court he did not have any questions for this witness.
Following Atkinson’s testimony, the district attorney’s office called Lori Allen to the stand. Allen works for the Precinct 2 Court.
Muhammad asked Allen if the Precinct 2 was still experiencing problems from the credit card reversals performed by Werkmeister. Allen testified that the court receives calls daily from people who are angry four years after the theft.
Muhammad then asked if she knew how many people had been affected by Werkmeister’s actions.
Allen stated that in researching the incident before court proceedings, she found 29 people that were affected and other clerks found three additional people. She added that those were the only people she could find and feels that there could be more victims.
When the witness passed to the defense for questioning Griffin informed the court he had no questions.
Texas Ranger Adam Sweaney was the called to stand to testify. Sweaney was one of the investigators involved with the case. He told the court that he believes that there was the element of proof was met to that showed Werkmeister had tampered with governmental records.
Griffith asked Sweaney if he conducted background checks on Werkmeister. Sweaney told him that he did and didn’t find any previous criminal history.
Werkmeister’s attorney Courtney Stamper called her husband, William Werkmeister, to the stand. Stamper asked William what this experience has done to his family.
“It has devastated us. It has brought our life to a halt for the last five years,” William said. “It has always hung like a cloud around us.”
William was then asked by if this has affected his a job as a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety. William replied that it had.
Stamper then asked William how today’s verdict made feel.
“It hurts. I don’t have to like it, but I have to accept it,” William remarked.
William then told the court that his wife had done a lot of positive things in her life from being a good mother to volunteering her time to work with organizations like the SPCA.
Stamper asked William if Werkmeister was deserving of a second chance. William told the court that if given a chance she could redeem herself and follow the rules provided by the court.
Under cross-examination, Muhammad asked William when his wife told him that she was having problems at work. William stated was in December of 2012 that Werkmeister said, “things were not balancing.”
Muhammad asked William if he knew of Werkmeister actions. William said that he didn’t know what was going on and didn’t know anything was happing. He informed the court that they both keep separate bank accounts from each other.
“I don’t look at her accounts,” William explained. “I had no knowledge of it.”
Griffith then called Werkmeister’s daughter Hannah Story and later mother, Sandra Stafford, to the stand to testify. When asked by Griffith that should Werkmeister be granted probation Story and Stafford both told the court that Werkmeister was deserving of a second chance.
Under cross-examination, Muhammad asked Stafford what did Werkmeister tell her about what happened.
“She has told me that she was a terrible bookkeeper and made some terrible mistakes,” Stafford said. “She told me the mistakes made her look like a theft.“
Punishment Closing Remarks
Before the closing remarks, Ermatinger gave the sentencing options to the jury. These options included five to 99 years in prison or life in prison and a possible fine not to exceed $10,000. The jury also had an option to grant probation if the sentence was no more than 10 years.
Following Ermatinger’s statement, Muhammad addressed the court. Muhammad told the jury that Werkmeister’s was not worthy of probation.
“This case boils down to broken trust. A public servant is held to a higher standard. Just because she is eligible for probation doesn’t; mean that she is worthy of it. Every time she falsified a government record she committed a felony offense,” Muhammad explained. “What is theft? Theft is a crime of opportunity. Classes are not going to change that. What you decide today is going to send a message to Ellis County.”
Stamper followed Muhammad and told the jury that everyone in life makes mistakes. He stated that a person could be redeemed and implored the jury to give Werkmeister a second chance by selecting probation.
“What is the appropriate for this situation for someone who has lived for 48 years without a criminal conviction. She has made her mistake and has excepted that. We are not here to dispute that. I am not here to tell what to do, but punishment comes in many forms,” Stamper noted. “She is now and forever a convicted felon. Every time she goes somewhere or takes an oath, she will be reminded that she is a thief. She will have a scarlet ‘T’ on her back for the rest of her life.”
Stamper continued stating that people can learn from mistakes and asked for that chance to redeem Werkmeister in the eyes of her family, friends and the community.
Jones followed Stamper and said the case is simple and is about greed.
“She made a conscience decision. Think about the good uses that could have been used with this money,” Jones said. “That opportunity was not afforded to the county. She decided to take her position of trust and violate it. What does that say if we give her probation? It makes it a Joke. Justice demands prison time.”
The jury was then sent out to deliberate at 3:15 p.m. on Friday and returned to the courtroom at 5:29 p.m. with their sentence of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Werkmeister was given credit for one day served by Ermatinger and was then escorted her out of the courtroom by Ellis County Sheriff’s Deputies.
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