EVANSTON — A former director for Uinta Senior Citizens, Inc. has been sentenced for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars during her time overseeing the Evanston and Bridger Valley senior centers.
Sarah Kristine Blakeman was in United States District Court in Cheyenne on Thursday, Jan. 3, where Judge Nancy D. Freudenthal sentenced her to 57 months in federal prison and ordered Blakeman to pay $605,590.31 in restitution.
Blakeman was indicted by a federal grand jury in August 2018. According to the indictment, Blakeman “knowingly and unlawfully embezzled and intentionally misapplied property worth at least $5,000 that was in the care, custody or control of Uinta Senior Citizens, Inc.”
However, Amy Kelly, who served as director from March 2016 to August of last year, said the special agent assigned to the case indicated the actual amount Blakeman embezzled was closer to $1 million.
Blakeman worked at the senior center for 15 years before she was escorted out of the building by law enforcement on Feb. 10, 2016.
“When we first found some real evidence that this was going on and were able to have the board look at it and realize, ‘Wow, we have a problem,’” Kelly said. “None of us thought it was going to be more than a few thousand dollars, truly.”
But during the two-year investigation, Kelly said, it was shocking to learn more and more theft had taken place.
“Then when we opened Pandora’s box, so to speak, and found all the checks and credit card receipts … it was overwhelming, the evidence. Like, ‘Oh my God, this is huge.’ Our jaws would drop sometimes in astonishment,” Kelly said.
Doris McIntire, former director of transportation at the senior center, worked there for 14 years; three of those were while Blakeman was director. McIntire said before the sentencing, she and others met with the federal prosecutor who told them Blakeman’s plea deal included 18 months in prison. She told the Herald she was very disappointed to hear that Blakeman wouldn’t have to serve much time for her crimes.
“We couldn’t believe it,” McIntire said. “We had to walk out of there thinking, “At least there’s some jail time.”
Kelly said she felt similarly.
“It was very stressful,” she said, “but it was very much … I think … I feel that this is something a lot of seniors here and in the valley knew what was going on … and worried that she would get a slap on the wrist. … It was disappointing at the time.”
During the sentencing hearing, several people spoke in support of the center, including Kelly, McIntire, board chair Casey Davis and director of programs Barb Bauer. Blakeman’s nephew, Jacob Blakeman, spoke in support of his aunt. The court also read letters both supporting the senior center and supporting Sarah Blakeman.
But then something unusual happened, McIntire said. United States federal sentencing guidelines uses a sentencing table with a point and tier system. Judges have some discretion within those guidelines. After hearing from the victims in court on Thursday, Judge Freudenthal added six points to Blakeman’s original assessment, allowing for a significantly harsher punishment — 57 months instead of the 18 originally agreed upon by attorneys from both sides.
“We were elated,” McIntire said. “We were just elated.”
Kelly also said the increase to prison time is unusual.
“… The letters were convincing,” Kelly said. “We were told that a lot of things were unprecedented that happened in court that day.”
She said she thinks the judge heard the extent of the harm Blakeman caused the center and added more time, which Kelly is happy about.
“We were actually shocked,” she said, “pleasantly surprised, elated.”
McIntire said she told the judge that the senior center used to be a place for people to go and sometimes get massages, go on fun trips and have more activities, but some of that dwindled away under Blakeman’s watch.
After three years working for Blakeman, McIntire said her former boss got stingier and stingier with funds.
“I couldn’t get any money from Sarah,” she said. “By the time I left, I couldn’t get any money for the safety or maintenance of those vehicles. Sarah said there’s no money.”
Kelly said investigators found evidence that Blakeman had been misusing senior center funds as far back as 2011.
So what does one spend more than $600,000 on over five years?
“There were a lot of personal things,” Kelly said. “Sarah, it appears, got a credit card put in her own name and basically she used it like it was her own money.”
Kelly said Blakeman used senior center funds to pay for plane tickets, vacations, computers, tires, gifts, groceries and a whole lot of meals, among other things.
There were college tuition and college books purchased with senior center funds. Kelly said those payments didn’t have names tied to them, but Jacob Blakeman was attending Weber State University, the recipient of those payments, at the time
Kelly also said Blakeman used senior center funds for Red String Productions, an LGBT-focused production company in California.
“There was a lawsuit involved with that [company],” Kelly said, “and a lawyer involved in that was paid from the senior center.”
According to an October 2013 story written by June Williams for Courthouse News Service, Blakeman and actress Cathy DeBuono sued Jill Bennett and Red String Productions, alleging the defendants had cut the two plantiffs out of the company after Blakeman had invested enough to make her a 50-percent owner of the project.
The suit was centered around “Second Shot,” a web series about a lesbian soccer star who returns to her hometown to run a gay bar.
There were also quite a few of what Kelly described as “bogus contracts and contracted employees who seem to be friends with Sarah from California.”
Kelly said it’s disheartening that one person can almost completely ruin a company, but current director Aimee Ottley has said in the past that controls are now in place that make it impossible for something like this to ever happen again. Although she couldn’t be reached for comment before press time, Ottley previously told the Herald that she’s glad this dark chapter is behind everyone and she’s looking toward the future.
In addition to the prison term and restitution, Blakeman will also be on supervised probation for three years following her release and must pay a $100 special assessment.
The judge recommended that Blakeman serve her time at FCI Phoenix, where she must enroll in a work program to begin paying restitution immediately. Once released, she’s been ordered to pay the greater of $100 per month or 10 percent of her gross monthly income.