DADE CITY — The last embezzler Pasco Detective Jennifer Morton arrested lived well off the money she had stolen. She bought a nice house and a luxury car. She carried Coach handbags.
But this spring, when Morton began investigating a 48-year-old bookkeeper accused of stealing more than $250,000 from her longtime employer, the case seemed less straightforward. Cynthia Watson, whom friends called Cindy, didn't drive a fancy car. She lived with her mother and her stepfather in a 1,620-square-foot house on Riada Way in Dade City.
When she was arrested Tuesday morning, Watson told Morton she had kept little for herself. Instead, money from unauthorized checks she allegedly wrote went to friends and strangers. She paid struggling friends' rent, she told Morton. Once, she said, she gave money to a woman she saw crying at a bar.
She told Morton she "felt like Robin Hood," stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
"She would give money to friends and people she'd meet," said Morton, a detective in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office economic crimes unit.
Detectives said her operation spanned six years, from January 2003 to October 2009, when her boss discovered her thefts and fired her.
A longtime employee at the small travel agency Roatan Charters, which specializes in vacations to Honduras and Belize, Watson was in charge of the trip accounts. Roatan's owner, William Evans, trusted her enough to give her a stamp bearing his signature so she could conduct business in his absence.
Using his signature stamp, authorities said, Watson made out checks that she later endorsed and cashed. To hide the theft from Evans, she altered company records and bank statements to make it appear as though the checks paid for various vendor expenses in South America — vendors that never existed, Evans told Morton.
The checks show that she took $100 or $200 at a time, which may be why they slipped Evans' notice, Morton said. Evans and his wife, Jaki, with whom he founded Roatan in 1981, were also preoccupied with family medical issues while Watson was stealing, she said.
But when Watson asked to handle a $1,000 cash deposit that her friends had brought into Roatan to pay for a trip, then deposited only part of it, Evans got suspicious. He checked records of her other transactions, fired her and conducted an internal audit to separate legitimate checks from unauthorized ones.
The day she was fired from the small office, where she had worked for 14 years, both Watson and the Evanses cried.
"They thought of her as family," Morton said.
Before leaving, the detective said, Watson also tried to destroy some of the records of her theft.
Watson, who was employed as a cashier at a Circle K in Wesley Chapel as of Wednesday morning, told deputies she had not expected to be arrested. But by February, Evans had reported Watson to the Sheriff's Office, which has examined 152 checks Watson wrote and is still sorting through a box full of more checks.
Charged with grand theft, Watson remained in the Land O'Lakes Detention Center in lieu of $25,000 bail on Wednesday.
The Sheriff's Office is still investigating another person in the case, spokesman Kevin Doll said. Authorities did not name that person, but said the other suspect did not work for Roatan.
When Watson was told the checks had been worth a quarter of a million dollars, she cried from shock and remorse, Morton said.
"Her eyes got big," Morton said. "It was kind of a surprise to her."
Once or twice, she thought about stopping, Watson said. But more needy friends would always pop up.
The friends and strangers who received money from Watson probably did not know their gains were ill-gotten, Morton said. And Watson would not give the names of anyone she had helped.
Morton said she still doesn't know how much, if any, Watson kept for herself.
"There's evidence she did use some, but she didn't have anything to show for it," Morton said.
Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Vivian Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.