Extradited woman pleads guilty

The woman who was extradited from Jamaica in 2003 for theft pleaded guilty in Grand Court on Friday.

Marcia Marlene Whittaker (nee Wiggin) had been charged with the theft of US$351,017.05 from Cayman Tours and Travel between June 1996 and December 1997.

She offered a plea to stealing US$281,965. This was acceptable to the Crown and to the court.

After hearing the circumstances of the theft and mitigation, Mrs. Justice Priya Levers imposed a sentence of four years imprisonment, with credit for time in custody.

Defence Attorney James Austin-Smith expressed concern that prison authorities here might not take into account the six months Whittaker spent in custody in Jamaica before she was brought back to Cayman.

After further discussion, the judge changed the sentence to three and a half years, with credit for time in custody here.

The summary of facts was presented by Crown Counsel Marlene Smith.

She said Whittaker was employed as a travel agent with the company. Her duties included collecting money from persons to whom she sold airline and cruiseship tickets, issuing receipts and properly accounting for all sums collected.

The owner of the agency became aware of accounting irregularities in December 1997 and hired an accountant to undertake an investigative audit of the company’s financial records. The audit revealed that a sum of US$351,017.05 was unaccounted for.

It also revealed that the accused over an 18-month period had circumvented the company’s accounting system by recording on her internal account returns, the receipt numbers for receipts which had already been issued to other customers.

In this way, customers who had paid in cash would appear on the accounting sheet with a valid receipt number, while Whittaker kept the cash.

The audit disclosed that she was the person who had dealt with all of the ticketing transactions for which discrepancies had been found. Whittaker was arrested for theft on 29 December 1997.

She fled the jurisdiction in 2000 and was returned to Cayman on 2 September 2003 after the extradition proceedings were instituted [in February 2002]. Whittaker had remained in custody since then.

Ms Smith noted that ‘tariff guidelines’ for theft provide for a likely sentence of immediate imprisonment, ranging from one to four years for a first offence, plus an order of repayment.

Factors to be considered include the value of the property stolen and any other aggravating factors, particularly where there is a breach of trust in the context of a relationship of employment.

In Whittaker’s case, Ms Smith pointed out, this was not a first offence. She had been sentenced in 1992 for four counts of theft from her employer and four counts of false accounting. She was sentenced to two years imprisonment, suspended, and ordered to pay $44,740 in compensation.

The owner of Cayman Tours and Travel was aware of these previous convictions, but gave Whittaker a chance. As to sentence, the Crown wanted to say that the owner was tremendously affected by the theft and the company almost went broke.

Ms Smith said some investigation had been done here and in Jamaica, but no assets had been found in Whittaker’s name.

Records showed that Whittaker had been spending as she went along. Monies were used for her own ‘fun and enjoyment’.

Medical bills

Mr. Austin-Smith accepted the facts of the offence but rejected what the Crown said about how the money was spent.

He said Whittaker’s mother suffered from Type 3 diabetes and was requiring regular extensive treatment by 1996. The mother did not have insurance nor did she benefit from state assistance.

In 1997 she was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. That led to operations and chemotherapy treatments. The bill was extensive.

Mr. Austin-Smith said it was no coincidence that the thefts occurred around this time. The stolen money was spent exclusively on Whittaker’s mother, he asserted. It was therefore wrong to suggest that the defendant had been ‘living the high life’. He said the medical bills could be obtained if the court wished.

The attorney cited recent cases in the UK and the thinking on ‘economic crimes’. He said Whittaker deserved credit for her guilty plea. Much time had been spent waiting for an accounting expert’s report; it had been received two weeks earlier and the Crown was advised straightaway.

Asked if she wished to say anything, Whittaker said she was sorry to have caused her employer pain and wanted to ask her forgiveness.

In passing sentence the judge said this had been a particularly bad case of breach of trust. She told the defendant that the employer had been ‘exceptional enough to give you a second chance. You repaid her by nearly destroying her business.’

The matter was further aggravated by Whittaker’s fleeing and putting the Crown to the cost of extradition.

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