A "selfish act" requiring sophisticated planning to bring to fruition.
Those were the words Judge Ronald Hansen used Friday to describe the crimes of convicted embezzler Kimberly Sziraki, before revealing her sentence in Merced County Superior Court: seven years in state prison.
Friends and family members of Sziraki wept openly after Hansen announced his verdict. The 45-year-old mother of four was convicted of embezzling $1,476,510 from nut processing plant Central Valley Processing Acquisition Corp. between 2005 and 2008, where she worked as a manager. She also was ordered to repay the money.
Wearing a pink sweater, her brown hair pulled back, Sziraki tried comforting her devastated children and husband, Merced County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Sziraki, after the verdict was read. She turned to them and offered a melancholy smile, followed by a sharp wink. Shortly afterward, she exchanged hugs with several well-wishers and was led away by bailiffs to begin serving her sentence.
She pleaded no contest in June to four felony counts of embezzlement and unlawfully using a credit card, as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. Thirteen counts were dropped as part of the deal.
Prosecutors said there's no evidence Steve Sziraki was aware of the crimes when they were happening. Before Friday's hearing, Kimberly Sziraki had faced between five and eight years in prison.
Her attorney, John Garcia, on Friday argued for a minimum sentence of five years, saying she had no prior record, had expressed remorse and was in the grips of alcoholism at the time of the crimes.
Sziraki dabbed her eyes wtih a tissue as Garcia spoke of how she was an online gambling addict who on one occasion spent $400,000 in less than three hours. Sziraki was also suffering from severe depression coupled with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, Garcia related, saying she cooperated fully with investigators from the district attorney's office in the case. "There are no expensive vacations, no expensive automobiles, no expensive renovations to homes," Garcia told Hansen. "All of this money was unfortunately squandered through alcohol addiction."
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold took exception with how Garcia characterized Sziraki. "Having an addictive personality does not mean your actions are involuntary," Goold said.
Ultimately, Hansen also disagreed with Garcia, saying the crimes happened on many occasions over a period of years. Hansen also highlighted the deceptive means Sziraki used to steal, such as writing checks to herself and making false entries in the company's books.
Hansen pointed out the massive amount Sziraki had embezzled, saying she'd have faced an "astronomical" sentence if there were separate counts for each illicit check. "I do not find mental condition reduces the culpability for the crime," Hansen said.
Ken Spagnola, who co-owns Central Valley Processing with his wife, said the $1.4 million loss didn't include the collateral damage and heartache Sziraki caused his company. For example, employee salaries were cut because of her actions, Spagnola said, adding there were payroll taxes that went unpaid when she was at the company.
Spagnola said the seven-year sentence was about what he would expect. "They could have put her in prison for the rest of her life -- and that's not what I would have wanted," Spagnola said. "If she ends up spending half the time in prison, I think that's a good sentence."
Still, Sziraki had her supporters, including Merced City Councilman Bill Blake. The former undersheriff wrote a letter to Hansen, asking for leniency. Blake, who shares a grandson with Sziraki, said he'd noticed her alcohol addiction became more "pronounced" over the years, and her personality had changed as a result. "It became clear to me that Kim was on the verge of a breakdown as she deteriorated from the alcohol abuse and depression," Blake wrote. "You could tell when talking to Kim that she was struggling to keep up a happy appearance and it was noticeable when compared with four years prior when her happiness was sincere and not affected by alcohol and depression."
Although Blake, who wasn't present at Friday's hearing, wrote he could imagine the outrage of the victims, he said Sziraki's family would experience an "immense loss" with a wife, mother and grandmother being sent to prison. "Kim Sziraki is irreplaceable to her family and friends and the time she is gone will leave a huge void in the lives of many and will be time lost that will hurt her and many around her."
Blake wasn't the only familiar name on Sziraki's list of supporters. Diana Almanza, former director of the now-defunct "A Woman's Place." also turned up at Sziraki's sentencing hearing and wrote a letter of support. Almanza made headlines in 2008 after she crashed into a parked van on Dinkey Creek Avenue. Police said she'd been drinking. Less than a week later, she hit the same van and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent, police reported. Almanza pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving and a hit-and-run.
In her letter, Almanza asked Hansen for the "lowest possible" sentence. "She certainly will not be in a position to be able to repeat this offense and, quite frankly, I cannot imagine that she will ever repeat any illegal activity given her remarkable record of committing no crime prior to this offense," Almanza wrote.
Sziraki will probably be sent to a prison in Chowchilla, Garcia said, but exactly where hasn't been determined yet. Because the crime wasn't a violent offense, she could be paroled in three-and-a-half years. "I expect that she's going to be a model prisoner and will get out in the least possible time," Garcia said.
The District Attorney's Office originally projected Sziraki had embezzled $1.6 million, but that figure was later scaled back to $1.4 million.
Reporter Victor A.Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.