Deputy Sheriffs' Association Boss in California Pleads No Contest to $400k+ Theft; Sentenced

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Sheriff's badgeLaw enforcement officers are supposed to protect the public from financial crimes, not engage in them. Donald Philip Atkinson didn't take the credo seriously. On June 20, Atkinson, a retired sergeant with the El Dorado County, California Sheriff's Department, pleaded no contest to three charges related to his embezzlement of over $300,000 from the deputy sheriffs' association he headed, plus another $100,000 from the mother of a friend. He had been arrested in March and charged with 44 felony counts, including fraud, embezzlement and forgery. At the time, Atkinson pleaded not guilty. The case grew out of an investigation by the California Attorney General's Office and El Dorado County prosecutors. The deal called for Atkinson to serve five years in state prison and pay full restitution. Sentencing was handed down on July 31.

Donald Atkinson, 50, a resident of El Dorado Hills, Calif., is a retired sheriff's deputy for mainly rural El Dorado County, which encompasses much of California's Sierra Nevada foothills. Many residents are descendants of Gold Rush settlers. State and county prosecutors had evidence Atkinson was stealing union gold. Court records indicate that during January 1, 2005-June 30, 2011, he diverted more than $300,000 from the Deputy Sheriffs' Association (DSA) of El Dorado County, where he served as president. Specifically, Atkinson was accused of: falsifying documents to the union for reimbursement; cashing checks ostensibly written for DSA-sponsored charitable purposes and keeping the money; and writing checks from the union general fund to pay a girlfriend's rent. None of the "charitable" organizations named by Atkinson had received any money from him or the union, including a nonprofit fund set up for families of four Oakland police officers murdered in 2009.

Were that not enough, Atkinson engaged in theft of $100,000 he received last year from Lisolette Holzer, 72, the mother of a longtime friend. He convinced Holzer to loan him the money by claiming he would use it to buy a photography business from a man with cancer. The contract that he signed to pay back the money turned out to be phony, and bank records showed he never used the woman's money for the stated purpose. Holzer remarked after the fact: "It really hurt. I hate to lose the money I gave him, but I'm kind of devastated that I was taken for a fool." For a while, authorities had been taken for fools; the third "no contest" plea was perjury related to statements Atkinson had made in relation to the disappearance of DSA funds.

Atkinson was arrested in Nevada on March 8, brought back to El Dorado County, and charged with 44 counts of embezzlement, fraud, forgery, perjury, grand theft and theft from an "elder or dependent adult." He entered a plea of not guilty. Eventually realizing the futility of his case, he pleaded no contest on June 18, the result of an agreement between prosecutors and the County Public Defender's Office. Atkinson will serve five years in prison and pay $338,348.14 in restitution to the Deputy Sheriffs' Association plus another $100,000 to Holzer, a sentence formalized on July 31.