SACRAMENTO -- Cal Worthington's former bookkeeper was sentenced Tuesday in federal court to four years and three months in prison for embezzling more than $750,000 from the colorful car dealer.
Susan Michelle Pruett was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton to repay Worthington $756,139.
In 2006, she hit a $1 million jackpot at a South Lake Tahoe casino and took a lump sum of $497,954 rather than yearly payments that would equal the full amount. But the Internal Revenue Service, which had her under investigation, promptly confiscated the money.
Partial restitution sought
The U.S. attorney's office has agreed to ask officials at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., for authorization to turn over seized funds to Worthington as partial restitution.
Karlton sentenced Pruett's husband, Kenneth R. Pruett, to a year and nine months for preparing federal income tax returns for each of them that did not report the embezzled money.
The judge ordered the Folsom couple to jointly make restitution to the IRS of $133,807 in unpaid taxes for the years 2002, 2003 and 2004.
The couple were ordered to surrender to begin serving their sentences Jan. 29. Both have prior convictions for similar crimes.
Susan Pruett, who worked for Worthington for a little more than four years, pleaded guilty in July to mail fraud and tax evasion and admitted stealing the money between 2002 and 2006 by forging 54 checks drawn on the account of Big W Ranch, a nut ranch in Calaveras County owned by Worthington.
At the same time, Kenneth Pruett pleaded guilty to tax evasion and admitted helping his wife gamble away her ill-gotten gains at Nevada and California casinos and preparing fraudulent tax returns to hide the income.
In a sentencing memo filed last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Samantha Spangler recommended to Karlton that he impose a prison term of three years and five months on Susan Pruett.
But Karlton described her crime as "a very serious breach of trust," and decided on the four years and three months, the maximum spelled out in advisory sentencing guidelines.
"I'm surprised it's only 51 months," the judge said. "It's a huge crime." Television dealership advertisements featuring Worthington in his trademark Stetson, an array of animals as props and his invitation to "Come see Cal," have made him a familiar figure in California.
In a letter to the U.S. attorney's office written a week ago on behalf of Worthington, lawyer Lawrence Miles Jr. said his client "has never experienced this level violation."
"To have someone so inti- mately involved with his business and personal finances violate his trust and that of his closest business advisors, and (to) do so over a sustained five- or six-year period, was not only incredibly damaging and humiliating, but seriously compromised his innate trust in people," Miles wrote.
"In short, the damage done has been as much to the human spirit of an 87-year-old man as to his savings account.
"Gambling the proceeds of her misdeeds was just the icing on the cake. She thought herself smarter than anyone in the room, invincible, and pernicious in her abuse."
In Kenneth Pruett's case, Karlton adopted Spangler's recommended sentence of one year and nine months.
The judge said he is more understanding of Kenneth Pruett's position.
"It's not easy for a man to give up his wife," Karlton said.
However, the judge said, Kenneth Pruett should have made an aggressive effort to stop his wife once he learned of her thievery. "His crime demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of his responsibility to people around him," Karlton said.
The Pruetts were tripped up in February 2006 after Kenneth Pruett's former lover called a Worthington dealership to report the embezzlement. Pruett had confided to the woman that his wife was stealing from Worthington.