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A former secretary on probation on a fraud case is sentenced to prison

DADE CITY — Laura Serneels Kolka was looking for a last second chance.

She got her first one three years ago, after she admitted to stealing thousands of dollars from her former boss, a Darby auctioneer. In exchange for cooperating with investigators and promising to pay back the more than $14,000 she owed, Kolka was spared prison. Instead she would spend 10 years on probation.

But this year, Kolka, 33, violated her probation when she tested positive for cocaine. She was arrested and kept in custody until a judge could decide how next to punish her.

And in court Wednesday, everything had changed.

The victim no longer cared about being paid back. She wanted prison time for Kolka.

The prosecutor was not interested in Kolka's promise to be a productive member of society.

The judge too was unswayed.

"In 2002, you wrote a lot of checks. Today's the day they get cashed," Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa said as he sentenced her to 10 years in prison.

Kolka pleaded no contest in 2006 to more than two dozen charges of grand theft and uttering a forged instrument. Investigators said she stole checks from William "Dave" Newman, the auctioneer for whom Kolka worked as a secretary until 2002.

On Father's Day of that year, Newman was robbed at his home, jumped by several men who beat him, shot him in the leg and tied him to a tractor as they searched his home for money.

Kolka spoke to investigators in the case but was never charged. Her testimony about the robbers helped win her a lighter sentence the first time around.

But Newman and his wife, Jennifer, always believed she had something to do with the siege because of the robbers' familiarity with the property.

"They had to have information from somewhere, and she knew," Jennifer Newman, 63, said after court.

One man, Aledward Robertson, went to trial a few months later and was convicted, largely on Newman's emotional testimony. Robertson is serving a lifetime prison sentence, topped off with another 15 years.

A second suspect, Wilford Washington Jr., was picked up the day of the robbery, found hiding in a pasture on Newman's neighbor's property.

The state dropped its charges against Washington when the federal government went after him instead. In March 2007, he pleaded guilty to three federal charges and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. He was ordered to pay $2,000 restitution to Newman.

Jennifer Newman said her husband, now 66, has never fully recovered from the attack, especially as Kolka's case has dragged on for seven years.

In the hearing, Kolka's sister and friend spoke on her behalf, asking the judge to give her another chance at probation, insisting that when she violated her probation she only harmed herself.

But Newman, who has watched her husband's health decline throughout the ordeal, isn't so sure. He has become fearful, she said, and had to retire from working.

"They don't live in our shoes," she said.

Kolka spoke briefly in court and showed no reaction when the judge handed down the sentence. She said she was sorry for what she'd done and took full responsibility.

In seven years, Newman said, "that was the first apology that we've heard."

A former secretary on probation on a fraud case is sentenced to prison 04/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 9:24pm]
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