A civil case in San Juan Superior Court alleges that Sarah and John Coffelt of Orcas Island embezzled at least $580,297 from William and Valerie Anders.
The Anders, who are being represented by Lawrence Delay, allege that Sarah Coffelt stole the money via credit cards, gas cards and bank transfers while employed as their bookkeeper. They are seeking financial restitution.
The Coffelts, who are being represented by Shawn Alexander, deny the allegations.
“All the claims are so far unproven and unsubstantiated,” Alexander told the Sounder. “They hit us with a huge pile of allegations and haven’t provided any proof.”
Alexander says the documents that the Anders filed with the lawsuit haven’t been “examined or verified.”
On June 29, Judge Donald Eaton issued a preliminary injunction that Sarah and John Coffelt are prohibited from withdrawing funds from one of their bank accounts and selling or disposing of personal property purchased with the alleged embezzled funds. In addition, they must file a surety bond, which financially guarantees that they will act in accordance with the court terms.
During the next few months, as the discovery phase of the lawsuit progresses, the San Juan County Sheriff has custody of the Coffelt’s property and house located on Orcas to ensure that it is not sold during court proceedings. A second house owned by the Coffelts is slated to be sold, and the net funds will be held in an escrow account until final disposition of the lawsuit.
Alexander said the proceedings thus far have been a cooperative effort between the plaintiffs and defendants.
William Anders is a retired United States Air Force Major General and one of the first astronauts to travel to the moon. He and his wife lived on Orcas from 1993 to early 2016, when they moved to Anacortes.
According to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, Sarah Coffelt was hired in 2003 as a bookkeeper for the Anders’ business entity, Apogee Flight, Inc., which owns hangars and aircraft. The business is a major financial provider of the nonprofit Heritage Flight Museum in Burlington, Wash. She did the payroll for the household, herself and employees at the museum and paid the bills for the Anders’ personal airplanes, hangars, boats and other businesses and family LLCs in their name.
In June 2015, Valerie Anders asked Apogee Flight Administrative Assistant Pam Smith to revoke a fuel card that a former caretaker had been issued by Sarah Coffelt, who was also responsible for paying the invoices on the card. Smith discovered unusually high fuel charges on the employee’s card and that two extra cards had been issued: one to Sarah and her husband John.
In reviewing the records, she says that from 2008 to mid-2015 there were $31,000 worth of charges on the former employee’s card and $33,000 for Sarah and John’s cards. When William Anders questioned Sarah about the high charges, she allegedly said it was their “only perk” of the job.
In his court declaration, William Anders wrote, “I did not pursue the gas card issue further at the time, deciding instead that I would consider these ‘expenditures’ to be gifts to long-term employees in order to close the matter gracefully, and the apparently abused gasoline card accounts were closed.”
In the following months, the Anders moved their accounting to the Heritage Museum in Burlington, and decided to reduce Sarah Coffelt’s role as bookkeeper. On April 17, 2016, William Anders asked Smith to look into several credit card accounts he had been carrying under Apogee. She learned that from October 2013 to April 2016 there was a revolving balance between $78,000 and $99,999 on a MasterCard with charges that William Anders did not authorize. As of March 2016, there was an outstanding interest-bearing balance of $84,150. A majority of the charges were made to Amazon.com. There were also charges to Peterson-Arne, Notions Marketing, Intuit, Verizon and Alaska Air. Sarah Coffelt was terminated on April 22, and asked to turn over all of her electronic accounting files. According to Smith, the data included everything but the MasterCard statements. In her court declaration, Smith suspected Sarah Coffelt ran up a “high balance due for years, paying the account’s required minimum payment … to avoid it being cancelled or made an issue by KeyBank, which would thus alert the card’s guarantor, the Anders. A major contributing factor to the lack of prior detection of this credit card activity was that Sarah’s responsibilities included picking up the mail for Apogee.”
Smith said that in January 2016, the mailing address for the statements was switched over to the Coffelt’s home address in Eastsound.
After Sarah Coffelt’s termination, Smith reviewed all the accounts that she’d had access to, and discovered “questionable” transfers from the Apogee checking account to pay for the above mentioned MasterCard, credit card accounts not in the Anders’ names and unauthorized transfers from William’s personal, checking and savings accounts as well as checks written with forged signatures. Using documents dated back to January 2010, the Anders estimate $580,297 was taken in alleged fraudulent transactions. Smith said some of the QuickBooks files for the accounts were falsified to hide the unauthorized transactions.
Smith wrote, “There could conceivably be more such thefts prior to 2010, however, banks and credit cards companies have thus far been unable or unwilling to provide records from before 2010.”
During the discovery phase of the civil case, each party can obtain evidence from one another and record depositions.
“It’s their burden to prove these claims,” Alexander said. “We are working with them and trying to sort out the problem.”
The sheriff’s office was in the process of putting a criminal case together when detectives realized it was beyond their resource capability. Before charges were filed in San Juan County, the case was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“We do financial crimes quite a bit, but when you are talking about this amount of money, it would have been a huge drain on our budget and time taken away from cases like child crimes and drugs,” said Sheriff Ron Krebs. “The FBI has the staff and the resources. If the FBI didn’t take it, we would have sent it to the State Attorney General.”
Alexander said he is unaware of any pending criminal charges.
“This is a civil case,” he said.