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Bonner County embezzler gets 15 months in prison

by Tom Hasslinger
| December 31, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - A Bonner County woman who embezzled from the founders of a humanitarian relief organization that helps AIDS victims in Africa was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison on Thursday.

April Leigh Mathews, 40, will have to pay $109,486 in restitution as well as five years of supervised probation after her release, Senior Judge Justin L. Quackenbush ruled.

The stealing wasn't a one-time lapse in judgment, the judge said, rather a meticulous, daily operation that warranted the prison term.

"It is most serious because it was an ongoing breach of trust," Quackenbush told Mathews. "This wasn't a one-time mistake you made."

Mathews faced up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million, although a federal prosecutor recommended a sentence of 15-21 months.

Mathews defrauded The Luke Commission, which provides free medical care to people in remote areas of Swaziland, Africa. The commission is operated by Dr. Harry VanderWal and his wife, Echo.

"It's a relief but there is no victory," Echo VanderWal said outside the courtroom. "Today is the first time I heard her say sorry."

The Luke Commission has conducted more than 100 mobile clinics in Swaziland since 2004. Along with medical care, the group provides HIV testing and counseling, prescriptions, eyeglasses and clothing to children who were orphaned by AIDS.

Mathews was hired by the couple as an office assistant in 2007 and Echo VanderWal trained her for nearly 10 months. Mathews eventually opened lines of consumer credit in the victims' names and added her name to existing charge accounts. She also forged checks and overpaid herself and her husband for work they contracted with the victims to perform. Some of the proceeds were used to furnish Mathews' home with new appliances.

The restitution amount of $109,486 was agreed upon by both counsels.

Mathews, of Sagle, pleaded guilty in August in U.S. District Court to five counts of making false statements in credit card applications.

Mathews concealed her deceit by contacting the VanderWal's Web master and reactivating a former e-mail address, which the suit said was used to divert correspondence away from the VanderWals. She also changed phone numbers and postal addresses on accounts to sustain the ruse that defrauded The Luke Commission, related JLZ Enterprises, as well as the VanderWals' personal accounts.

A tearful Mathews, with her friends and family seated behind her, told the court Thursday her financial deceit began with a small amount she intended to repay, but quickly spiraled out of control.

"I know what I did was horrible," she said. "I truly regret my actions. I wish I could go back and do things different."

She must surrender for incarceration in the next several weeks, the judge ordered.

The nonprofit work in Africa continues nonetheless, Echo VanderWal said. Supporters have helped the family focus on their work through the ordeal and they are expected to return there in January.

"The work in Africa has never been better," she said.

Reporter Keith Kinnaird of the Bonner County Daily Bee contributed to this report.

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