Dave Ulferts nearly fell out of his seat.
He picked up his Sunday World-Herald last spring and read about a woman who had stolen a staggering $4.1 million from an Omaha business.
The woman: Caroline K. Richardson. The same woman Ulferts had fired —- and had reported to authorities — after she stole $109,000 from his business three years before.
No charges were brought after Ulferts' 2009 report, though Richardson had admitted the embezzlement to Ulferts and to Sarpy County sheriff's deputies, according to investigative reports.
Now Ulferts is wondering why Richardson wasn't held accountable then.
“The tragedy in all this is that after stealing from us, she went to a second Nebraska company and stole $4.1 million from them,” Ulferts said. “It didn't have to happen.”
Sarpy County authorities likewise are scrambling to sort out why the 2009 theft report died on someone's desk.
Caroline K. Richardson
The missed prosecution is the latest twist in the tale of one woman's swindling of at least two businesses.
According to court documents, Richardson admitted to stealing $4.1 million from Colombo Candy & Tobacco in a scheme that began about eight months after Ulferts caught her stealing from his business.
Besides the size of the theft, the Colombo case was remarkable because Colombo owner Monte L. Brown chose to sue others, not Richardson, for the company's loss.
The company has filed a lawsuit against Ameristar Casino, saying the casino should have known that Richardson was using ill-gotten money to gamble away millions. Brown also sued a former Richardson colleague for recommending that Brown hire her.
Now comes news of a missed chance to prosecute Richardson.
“We were not aware there was ever an actual (sheriff's) report on the 2009 theft,” said Colombo's attorney, Jill Robb Ackerman. “Had they taken action, this (the Colombo theft) potentially would not have happened.”
Ulferts is convinced of that.
His La Vista business — Waste Solutions of Nebraska — had hired Richardson as accounting manager in February 2009.
At the time, Ulferts said, the business was booming behind the force of its expanded recycling program, Curbside Rewards.
Even with the rapid expansion, Ulferts sensed something was wrong.
“We were burning through cash,” he said.
Searching for answers, Ulferts said he went to Richardson, a longtime Omaha-area accountant who had quickly gained his trust with her “incredible work ethic.”
Richardson offered a few reasons. Overtime. Rising gas prices. Rapid expansion. Acquisition costs for vehicles and containers.
Ulferts wasn't satisfied. By the summer of 2009, he brought in another accountant to “do a deep dive” into the books.
The new accountant didn't have to delve far, discovering that Richardson had been writing checks to herself, cashing them and removing the check copies from the bank statements. She would then hide the amounts of the “missing” checks under the fuel or contract labor categories on the company's spreadsheets.
Ulferts confronted Richardson in September 2009. She initially acknowledged that she had taken about $12,000 but said she had every intention of paying it back.
By the end of the day, the new accountant discovered that Richardson actually had written $108,895 in checks to herself.
Ulferts was horrified.
“It was embarrassing, painful — all of that,” he said. “As my mother would say, 'We learned a very valuable lesson.' You try to run a lean business. But at the end of the day, you can't have the person writing the checks also reconciling” the books.
Ulferts demanded that Richardson pay back the business. At the time, Richardson and her former husband were closing on a $410,000 sale of their house near Zorinsky Lake.
Within 10 days, she met Ulferts in a parking lot near 144th and Q Streets and dropped off a cashier's check for $108,895.
That didn't stop Ulferts from getting police involved.
He met with Sarpy County sheriff's investigators on Sept. 6, 2009, and detailed the theft. He provided investigators with copies of the checks Richardson had written to herself.
Deputies interviewed Richardson. She confessed to the theft — saying mounting debt, not gambling, was the reason behind it.
“She stated that the only option she had was to take money from the company in order to take care of her debt,” the sheriff's report said.
The report indicates that deputies subpoenaed Richardson's bank records and classified the theft as a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
“The case should be considered closed in the files of this office,” the report concluded. “It is being referred to federal agencies for federal prosecution.”
That reference had Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov and others scratching their heads. Nothing about the case made it distinctly a federal prosecution, Polikov said. No federal grant money was stolen. The scheme didn't necessarily cross state lines.
Polikov said it appeared to be a standard theft case, with solid evidence. The trail of checks. The restitution payment. The confession.
“It's a tantalizing case for a prosecutor — a rather straightforward one,” Polikov said. “This is exactly the kind of case we'd like to prosecute.”
However, Polikov said, no one in his office recalls receiving any communication from the Sheriff's Office. And computer records indicate that the reports were never transferred from the Sheriff's Office to the County Attorney's Office, Polikov said.
Likewise, the U.S. attorney and FBI offices in Omaha say they have no record, or recollection, of Richardson being referred for prosecution.
Months passed. By the fall of 2010, Ulferts was determined to find out what had happened to the case.
He went to the Sarpy County Attorney's Office. No one there had heard of the case, and he was told he needed a report number. Ulferts then drove to the Sheriff's Office, got the report and called prosecutors.
Ulferts said he doesn't remember whether he talked to a prosecutor or an office employee. But the person told him that the case had been referred to a federal agency, apparently parroting the last line of the report.
“I was relieved,” Ulferts said. “I thought 'Oh, OK, good: They'll make sure she ends up (in federal prison) in Leavenworth.'
“This certainly is not how I thought it would shake out. You take a step back and go 'Doesn't there have to be follow-up on a theft like this?' ”
The follow-up now is focused on what went wrong.
Lt. Steve Grabowski, who oversees theft investigations in Sarpy County, said the 2009 theft was considered for a federal prosecution in part because of the amount of money stolen. Grabowski said he is looking over case notes to try to track why it didn't get to federal or state prosecutors.
The deputy who initially took the theft report was new to investigations and has since moved out of the unit.
Polikov now has charged Richardson, 54, with three counts of filing a false tax return and three counts of tax evasion in connection with the $4.1 million theft. Her attorney declined to comment.
Polikov said the 2009 case should have been brought to him.
“The process is they bring it to me, and I get to decide where it goes (for prosecution),” Polikov said.
“It's not good. I feel bad about it. I just don't know what we can do about it now,” he said.
Indeed, the damage has been done.
With no action taken, Richardson began working at Colombo in May 2010, quickly rising to the position of controller. By September 2010 — one year after Ulferts' theft report to Sarpy County — she already had stolen $400,000 from her new boss.
Well on her way to $4.1 million.