Ex-paralegal was convicted of similar crime months earlier

A former paralegal at a Mount Pleasant law firm who, along with an accomplice, stole nearly $700,000 of the firm's escrow money last year and spent it on cars, property and a boat, will spend the next few years in a federal prison.

Amy C. Smith was sentenced to 2 1/2 years behind bars Thursday by a judge who seemed incredulous that the woman would attempt such a bold crime.

The theft was doubly daring given that Smith already had been caught and convicted for doing the same thing when she worked at a law firm in Myrtle Beach a few months earlier. She took away $88,000, a prosecutor said.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy told Smith he couldn't understand "what in the world you were thinking when you took that money and thought you wouldn't get caught."

In addition to the prison time, Duffy ordered Smith to give up her ill-gotten gains and pay total restitution in the amount of $378,113. Prosecutors doubt she'll ever have the ability to pay it back in full. The pair's vehicles included several newer model cars and trucks, property near Summerville and a 17-foot speedboat.

Smith, 33, pleaded guilty in June to a single count of wire fraud. Prosecutors contend the con began shortly after she was hired in May 2006. Within a matter of weeks, she was wiring hundreds of thousands of dollars from the firm's escrow accounts to an accomplice in Ohio, authorities said.

The money moved by check and wire transfer in at least three installments of $50,078, $224,070 and $416,573, an indictment said. The cash later came back to an account in South Carolina.

Smith's accomplice, Michelle Essary Biear, 30, fled to Florida shortly after her arrest. She was tracked down by federal marshals and is being housed in the Charleston County Detention Center. Her sentencing is scheduled for next month.

Smith was identified in court Thursday as the mastermind of the crime, but her attorney, Dale DuTremble of Charleston, asked for leniency. She could not make restitution or take care of her two children from a prison cell, he pleaded.

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Smith addressed the court briefly. "I'm not asking to be forgiven because I know I'll be punished forever for what I did," she told Duffy.

Prosecutors suggested Smith receive a sentence lighter than the 37 to 46 months that federal guidelines suggest for the crime, in part because Smith cooperated early in the investigation and helped to track down Biear.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart also called her crime a disgraceful act that has left potentially long-lasting damage to the law firm. No one from the firm was present in court Thursday to address the judge.

In the Myrtle Beach case, Smith pleaded guilty to breach of trust and received a 10-year suspended sentence, officials said, but kept the conviction secret from her new employer.

She has 90 days to report to her prison assignment.