Ellsworth woman sentenced to 5 years in prison

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A St. Croix County Circuit Court judge sentenced an Ellsworth woman to a prison term exceeding state recommendations for stealing more than a quarter-million dollars from a River Falls care facility.

Elizabeth A. Palo, 49, was sentenced to five years in prison for felony theft from a business Feb. 16.

She must also pay back $310,000 to Kinnic Health and Rehab, a River Falls nursing home and care facility where she used to work as an office manager.

Palo pleaded guilty to embezzling the money in December.

An administrator at the facility called for an audit in March after discovering about $100 of missing cash.

The audit revealed fake accounts in a patient's name to cash more than 300 checks payable to Palo.

The checks totaled more than $258,000.

The stolen money also included several thousand dollars taken from residents' trust accounts.

An investigation determined the crimes started in 2014.

"She had years to effectively care for and treat some of our most vulnerable with the utmost care and respect," St. Croix County Assistant District Attorney Erica Ellenwood said. "And she chose not to to do that. She chose to steal from them."

Kinnic staff said Palo's theft caused financial strains at the facility and cost the trust of residents and their families.

Mary Peterson, the facility's business office manager, said one man asked her if she would "steal from us like the last one did" when she introduced herself.

"Every encounter with the families after that was not positive," Peterson said.

Defense Attorney Joel Larimore said Palo intended to use the stolen money to pay for cosmetic surgery removing excess skin left over from a gastric bypass surgery.

Palo, he said, faced lifelong struggles with her weight.

Scott Hendrick, Palo's boyfriend, asked Judge Michael Waterman for leniency, crediting Palo for his sobriety following a 20-year drug addiction.

He admitted disparaging Palo for her weight when they were together.

"Now someone else is paying the price for what I did," he said.

Palo spoke through tears in her statement.

"There's nothing I can say but I'm so sorry," she said. "I've let so many people down. Those residents are my family."

Waterman questioned her remorse.

The day before the audit, an administrator reported receiving texts from Palo admitting to a record-keeping violation and suggesting an employee improvement plan rather than a full audit.

The administrator found Palo's office cleared out when she arrived to work later than day.

Records that were sought as part of the audit were missing.

Investigators found posts about "God and forgiveness" on Palo's Facebook profile the days the check had been written out to her.

Palo denied taking money from residents' accounts at her sentencing, which Waterman noted in his closing statement before handing down the sentence.

The thefts, Waterman said, would likely still be occurring had she not been caught.

"I don't think your apologies are sincere," Waterman said. "I believe you're sorry you were caught, I think you're sorry for the consequences, but I don't think you're sorry for stealing."