At age 60, Michele Gentry was supposed to be looking forward to retirement after raising two children.
The Mount Pleasant woman had been a successful mother, by many accounts. Her daughter became a schoolteacher. Her son graduated from law school and just passed the bar exam. It was supposed to be a time to celebrate.
Instead, an impending date looms over Gentry and her family. In the next two to three months, Gentry will be sent to a federal prison to begin a one-year sentence for embezzling more than $720,000 over 15 years from Bank of America. She worked at a Mount Pleasant branch as a teller.
On Tuesday, Gentry stood before a federal judge in a Charleston courtroom to be sentenced after pleading guilty in February. Dressed in a black suit, Gentry’s hand shook as she placed it on the Bible and pledged to tell the truth.
Fifteen years of deception got her there.
“She said she was relieved she no longer had to live as two separate people,” her son Aaron told the judge. She told him that when she confessed her crimes, he said.
Her son and her husband, Jasper, were among more than 50 people who filled every row inside the courtroom Tuesday. All were there to support her.
Gentry and her husband have been married for 41 years. They started as high school sweethearts. As he described the life they had led, Jasper Gentry’s voice cracked.
“If I knew 41 years ago what I know now, I would do it all over again,” he told the judge as he struggled to get the words out.
In the last two years, though, Jasper Gentry said he and his wife have had to borrow money, and the “money intended for retirement was redirected to restitution.”
She will have to pay back the $720,000 she pilfered from the bank. Gentry was the vault teller who would move money from the vault to the teller drawers. Between 1995 and 2011, she stole cash in $500 to $2,000 increments, according to prosecutors.
Gentry would replace the cash she would take with fake cash-in-transit tickets, inter-bank ledger entries and other paperwork to hide the embezzlement, prosecutors have said.
It went on until 2011, when Gentry called in sick to work one day and her branch manager discovered the embezzlement, prosecutors said. She was fired that August and confessed to the bank investigator and authorities.
Her family and friends told the judge during the sentencing hearing that Gentry expressed extreme remorse ever since she had come clean. Her church minister also told the judge about her time as a Bible school teacher at Mount Pleasant Church of Christ.
Her attorneys, Jerry Theos and Alan Toporek, hoped her remorse, community involvement and cooperation would be enough to keep Gentry, who has no prior criminal record, out of prison.
They asked U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel to sentence Gentry to probation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart argued in court that probation would be “unjust.” “She had many chances to reflect on what she was doing and stop it,” he told Gergel. “She was embezzling until she got caught.”
DeHart asked Gergel to consider the sentence outlined in the federal guidelines for this crime — 27 to 33 months in prison.
Gergel didn’t grant either of their requests and sentenced Gentry to 12 months and one day in prison, and five years of supervised release, to include six months of home detention.
In explaining his decision, Gergel called this a calculated and methodical crime.
Michele Gentry said nothing during the hearing that lasted more than an hour. Instead, one of her attorneys read a letter she had written to her former co-workers in May.
“I wish I could relive the past 16 years,” the letter stated. “It started with such small amounts and escalated to such high amounts, I couldn’t pay it back.”
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.