SEMINOLE — About three years ago, Charles Emmerson needed a bookkeeper and front desk manager for the local office of his company, SeatsAndChairs.com. Among the dozen or so people who applied for the job, Kristina Melvin stood out.
She was smart, professional and could deal with customers, negotiate with vendors and make sure everybody got their money.
The company didn't do a background check before hiring her. Now Emmerson wishes it had.
Melvin, 45, was arrested late Wednesday on a charge of grand theft after an investigation revealed she stole more than $100,000 from the company, Pinellas sheriff's officials said.
She used some of the stolen funds to pay restitution for a 2008 criminal case in which she pleaded guilty to doing the same thing, officials said.
Detectives say Melvin falsified payroll records for Emmerson's company, which refinishes and sells old theater chairs, and set up a PayPal account to funnel money to her bank account.
Emmerson said Melvin had seemed like a good employee. He had taken her out to lunch a few times. They got to know each other over sushi.
She was married and had kids, two in college, he recalled. She bought show horses and competed in equestrian shows.
Despite her affability, there was something off about Melvin, Emmerson said. Other people told him so, too, but he could never put his finger on what it was.
He said he figured it out in January 2012. About that time, Emmerson's ex-wife gave up her stake in the company, leaving him as the sole owner and operator.
Faced with hard times and declining business due to the economic recession, Emmerson wanted to examine the company's finances. He asked Melvin for passwords to their PayPal and bank accounts.
"She wouldn't give them up," he said. "So I knew something was wrong."
Emmerson broke into the computer server and changed the passwords on all the company accounts. When he finally got a look at the financial records, the theft was obvious, he said.
He took his findings to the Sheriff's Office, which later opened an investigation.
Melvin had created a fictitious PayPal account with a business name that resembled one of the company's long-term vendors, detectives said. That account was linked to her bank account.
Through PayPal, Melvin sent invoices to SeatsAndChairs.com, deputies said. She then took money from the company bank account and transferred it to the fake business account via PayPal. About $98,000 eventually landed in Melvin's personal account, deputies said.
She spent about $4,000 of it to pay restitution in her previous conviction, for which she was serving a 10-year probation sentence. Details of that case, which was investigated in 2008 by Pinellas Park police, were unavailable late Thursday.
In her time with SeatsAndChairs.com, Melvin also handled employee payroll records, which she altered to give herself $5,600 as a "stipend," deputies said. Detectives also found records showing that she used a company credit card to pay more than $800 to a Venice company that ran a horse show in which she participated.
All told, authorities said, Melvin embezzled $105,040 from Emmerson's business.
Shortly after discovering the fraudulent activity, Emmerson let Melvin go. He told her the company was downsizing and he couldn't afford to have her on staff anymore. He didn't tell her what he had found.
Melvin remained in jail Thursday on $50,000 bail.
The arrest came as welcome news, but it does nothing to relieve the desperate financial burden with which Emmerson continues to struggle.
The company is close to bankruptcy, he said. He has a mountain of debt. They are a long way from when they started 10 years ago, when they raked in as much as $100,000 a month. Now, he said, he doesn't see the business surviving.
Despite it all, Emmerson says he would forgive Melvin if she asked for it.
But, he says, "I doubt I'll ever get any of the money back."