News Column

Freed Former Museum Director Illustrates Long Process of Collecting Restitution for Financial Crimes

June 10, 2014

By Stephanie Schendel, The Chronicle, Centralia, Wash.

June 10--More than a year has passed since a judge ordered former Lewis County Historical Museum director Debbie Knapp to pay restitution for the massive theft that depleted the museum's finances.

As a part of the plea agreement reached between Knapp's attorney and prosecutors, she had to pay $20,000 the day she pleaded guilty. In exchange, prosecutors dropped six out of the 11 counts of first-degree theft.

The goal, prosecutors said at the time, was to get as much money back to the museum as possible.

Since that initial payment of $20,000, which her lawyer said previously is a sum loaned to her by family, she has paid the museum an additional $30 toward the total amount of $95,895 restitution she owes, according to Lewis County Clerk Kathy Brack.

Knapp also owes more than $17,000 in other fees and accumulated interest, Brack said.

The $30 was garnished from the paychecks she earned while working in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

Knapp, who was sentenced in May 2013 to serve 14 months in prison, was released about two months ago -- four months early.

During the course of her eight-month stint in prison, the clerk's office received a few checks to go toward Knapp's court and restitution payments from the Department of Corrections. The check amounts ranged from 11 cents to $14, Brack said.

Since her release, Knapp has contacted the clerk's office to notify them she has not been able to find a job and was having trouble paying her monthly payment of $150.

One-hundred dollars of that amount will go toward restitution while the other $50 will go toward the court fees, Brack said. She was to begin making the $150 payments 60 days after her release.

If Knapp pays every monthly payment when its due, she will finish paying back the museum in 63 years -- at age 116.

The former museum director contacted the clerk's office a few weeks ago and said she expected to send her first payment by May 30, Brack said. Knapp has not yet sent the payment in.

While authorities suspected Knapp was responsible for the disappearance of a much larger amount, the museum's finances were so disorganized prosecutors said they could not definitely prove she stole more than $95,000.

Since Knapp's arrest, which followed the 2011 realization that the museum's $450,000 endowment fund, along with its other bank accounts, were empty, the Lewis County Historical Museum has made huge strides to recover from the theft.

Andy Skinner, the museum's executive director said last week that the estate of June Clare, who died May 27, 2013, donated $125,000 to the museum's endowment fund in March. A recent second donation brought in another $24,000.

If Knapp fails to pay her ordered court payments three months in a row, her bill, along with anyone else's who fails to make required court payments, will be sent to collections.

A collections agency was not always how Lewis County dealt with individuals who failed to pay court payments.

About four years ago, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said people who were behind on their court payments would be brought into court on a probation violation. Oftentimes, those indebted individuals were then ordered to pay a certain amount of money or face jail time.

Meyer said the method was not very effective as it created a "revolving door" of people going in and out of jail.

Now, instead of facing jail time, the bills get sent over to the collection agency who then go after the people who are behind on their court payments, Brack said.

Brack said they do see quite a bit of money from collection agencies.

"It's just too bad it has to go that route," she said.

Brack said the clerk's office tries to work with people who are attempting to make their payments.

"It's a mixed bag as far as what we see," she said. "We see people who try, people who don't care, and people who just kind of vanish."

For those few who manage to pay off their court fees, after their final payment, those individuals can come into the court and ask the judge to waive the interest, which accumulates at 1 percent a month.

While the interest on the court fees can be waived, the interest on the restitution cannot, Brack said.

Meyer said a surprising number of people manage to pay off their court fees.

Despite those who do pay off their court fees, there are a few who will likely never be able to pay off the amount they owe.

While Knapp had a short prison sentence, which gives her the possibility of paying off some of her court fees, many felons who will likely never be released, like convicted murderers John A. Booth and Rick Riffe, both were also ordered to pay a high sum of court fees and restitution.

Riffe owes more than $28,000 in court fees and restitution while Booth owes more than $16,000.

Meyer said despite the fact that Riffe and Booth will likely never be able to pay the amount they owe, judges ordered them to pay court fees and restitution.

"You just never know what might happen," Meyer said.

They might receive a large inheritance or write a book that brings in a large amount of money.

For example, Colton Harris-Moore, known as the Barefoot Bandit, sold his story to 20th Century Fox for $1.3 million. All of the money went to pay the restitution he owed to the victims of his crime spree.

Also, Meyer said many inmates in Department of Corrections custody have a job where they earn a very small amount -- oftentimes a few dollars an hour.

Even if it brings a small sum of money, it is better than nothing, Meyer said.


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