Former Social Services worker charged with embezzlement

Lynn Burton

A former Garfield County Social Services employee is charged with embezzling at least $3,756 in state funds, some of which might have been spent on liposuction surgery.

District Attorney Mac Myers charged Selene Gamez Avitia, 32, of Silt, on one count of theft and one count of embezzlement of public property, according to 9th Judicial District court documents filed in early December.

The charges allege Avitia took Social Services money on or between Feb. 7 and June 14, 2000. During that time she had a “tummy tuck” and liposuction surgery in Grand Junction, after telling her supervisors she was having surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Documents filed in the case by Myers say Avitia’s former husband left her for another woman, and she had the liposuction and tummy tuck to become thinner and to “elicit sympathy from family, friends, co-workers and her former husband.”

Avitia did not return calls seeking comment.

District Attorney Myers was not available for comment.

Avitia was a $1,798-per-month eligibility technician for the Garfield County Department of Social Services. She had access to client records and files, and determined whether benefits were warranted, court documents say.

Social Services supervisor Janice George told district attorney investigators that Avitia authorized emergency benefits to a client who was to have received $3,756 from December 1999 to July 2000.

The client later applied for food stamps, and denied ever receiving the emergency funds. During a subsequent investigation, the client’s file was missing.

Avitia quit Social Services in June 2000, after George asked about irregularities in Avitia’s department.

In her statement to investigators, George said she started researching pancreatic cancer after Avitia’s surgeries, and Avitia’s “description of events did not appear to be consistent with medical literature.”

George said Avitia had referred to a cancer specialist from Illinois, but George learned the physician did not practice in Colorado.

Renee Horton, a fellow social services worker, said Avitia told her she was having a hysterectomy early in 2000, court records say.

“Renee Horton said Selene did not seem upset and told her the surgery would be through her `back,’ but she would not have to stay overnight,” the court record says. “Renee Horton said she thought it was unusual to do a hysterectomy through the `back.'”

Later, Avitia told Horton she had pancreatic cancer, and would need radiation and chemotherapy.

“Renee Horton, believing pancreatic cancer to be serious or fatal, asked Selene Gamez about what steps Selene was taking regarding her children,” court records say. “Selene Gamez told Renee Horton she wasn’t that bad, and she (Selene) was not going to die.”

The Department of Social Services donated 20 days of paid sick leave to help Avitia with what it believed to be cancer surgery.

Avitia told investigators she doesn’t remember how she used the money, but that it wasn’t for surgery. Rather, her stepfather paid for the surgery, and she paid him back, prosecutors said.

Avitia did not have a bank account during this period.

Renee Horton, at social services, told investigators Avitia often complained about money problems, “but noted Selene always seemed to have money to go to lunch or shop,” district court documents say.

Avitia will be arraigned at the Garfield County Courthouse on Thursday, Jan. 2.

T. Peter Craven is the presiding judge.

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