Trial begins in Pressler case
The trial of Erin Pressler on charges of theft, embezzlement and tax fraud began in earnest on Thursday after more than two years in legal limbo.
Pressler, 45, of New Castle, stands accused of stealing roughly $180,000 from her former employer, Designer Door Hardware in Glenwood Springs, between 2009 and 2012, as well collecting an additional $33,000 in invalid Social Security payments and filing false tax returns during the same time.
Defense attorneys say her boss gave her permission to use company money as she saw fit.
She was originally scheduled for trial in April 2014, but proceedings were delayed when her private attorney withdrew citing “irreconcilable differences.”
Prosecutors continued to build on the case throughout the year, ultimately filing 68 counts against the defendant. In anticipation of the trial, however, the District Attorney’s Office dropped some charges and consolidated the rest into one count of burglary, one count of computer crime, two counts of theft and four counts of filing a false tax return.
“The seriousness of the charges hasn’t changed, just the form,” explained Deputy District Attorney Jason Slothouber.
Jury selection took all day Wednesday, the first of eight days allotted for the trial. In her questioning, deputy public defender Sara Steele tested potential jurors’ reaction to the possibility that Pressler may not testify on her own behalf and that, in fact, the whole burden of proof is with the prosecution. Slothouber, meanwhile, talked with potential jurors about how white-collar crime stacked up against more traditional theft.
The attorneys gave their opening statements Thursday morning.
“You’re going to hear about frauds, deceits and cover-ups,” Slothouber told the jury. “You’re going to hear about how they all got tangled, and about how that tangled web unraveled.”
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Slothouber traced the course of the alleged crime. Pressler was on Social Security disability when she signed on as a bookkeeper at Designer Door Hardware in 2009. Prosecutors say she failed to inform the Social Security Administration of the change, filing her wages under her husband’s Social Security number and claiming not to be working in a 2011 review.
“She had an obligation she was very aware of to report if she started working, and she didn’t,” Slothouber said.
Meanwhile, Slothouber said, Pressler began making private purchases on a company credit card and using company checks for personal purposes, mostly to pay credit card bills. She covered her tracks in the company’s accounting software by inserting fake transactions with vendors, duplicating real transactions, or simply omitting the charges.
Pressler quit on May 25, 2012, and owner Jim Pribil changed the locks the same day. Several days later, someone deleted the company’s accounting software.
Pressler initially denied involvement and gave an alibi, but ultimately confessed to accessing the computer using a copy of a borrowed key.
Since only the program was deleted, not the data, the company was able to access the files and began constructing another set of books from bank data to use for comparison. Slothouber included a diagram of the type of thefts, including a line showing a $20,000 minimum for Pressler’s theft charge.
Prosecutors also allege that Pressler failed to pay taxes on both embezzled and legitimate income.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of Al Capone, who got away with murder, selling alcohol, but they finally got him on his taxes,” Slothouber said.
The defense didn’t appreciate the comparison, and objected to the prosecution’s use of the $20,000 threshold as argumentative. They moved for a mistrial on the grounds of “irreparable prejudice” caused by Slothouber’s statement, but after getting up to view the slide, Judge Denise Lynch denied the motion.
In her own opening, deputy public defender Molly Owens went deeper into Pressler’s backstory.
She broke her back in a work accident in the 1990s and went on disability. A mother of two, she taught herself bookkeeping to help with her husband’s business, and the pair of them agreed to help out when Pribil started Designer Door Hardware.
Owens characterized the working relationship as an “ongoing part-time position” for both Presslers, and said Pribil decided to use Pressler’s husband’s Social Security number in order to avoid potential workers compensation.
Furthermore, Owens asserted, Pribil was not only aware that Pressler was using money for personal reasons, he actively condoned it.
“Jim Pribil and the prosecution are going to ask you to believe that Erin Pressler took almost $200,000 from this business and the small business owner didn’t know about it,” she said. “It was all with Jim Pribil’s permission and blessing. … Jim Pribil agreed to pay Erin Pressler’s personal credit card bills, and Jim Pribil agreed to give her a company credit card to use at her discretion.”
Owens portrayed Pribil as a man with two sides, one pleasant and generous and the other controlling and quick to anger. Ultimately, she said, that’s why Pressler quit.
“Erin Pressler never meant to do anything illegal. All she wanted was to walk away,” Owens said.
The state called two Social Security witnesses Thursday. Pribil took the stand briefly at the end of the day, and will return Friday morning.
Whether Pressler herself will take the stand remains unclear. Deputy District Attorney Scott Turner estimated that his office would continue to call witnesses and produce evidence until early next week, at which point the defense will present its case.
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