Woman gets 9 years for $5.7M theft at work
By Teri Figueroa
Company owner Richard Sawyer, 74, said his Proformance Apparel Group, LLC, closed for good about 10 days ago and has filed for bankruptcy.
Proformance, which specialized in textile screen printing, had at one time employed more than 90 people.
Elizabeth Ann Masters, 45, siphoned the company’s money over about nine years, primarily by arranging to receive several extra paychecks each month, authorities said. The thefts started in 2003 — with her second paycheck.
She spent the money to care for her herd of about 100 horses at her Aguanga ranch in rural southwest Riverside County, Deputy District Attorney Anna Winn said.
Masters pleaded guilty last month to four felonies, including forgery and tax fraud, in exchange for a nine-year prison sentence. Under state law, she will be eligible for release in four and a half years.
Vista Superior Court Judge David Berry ordered Masters to pay $5.7 million in restitution to the company. He also ordered her to pay more than $650,000 to the Franchise Tax Board — money she owes after failing to claim her embezzled income on her tax returns.
Debbie Sawyer, Richard’s wife, spoke on behalf of the couple during the sentencing. She said Masters, who had been a guest at their daughter’s wedding, built a false sense of friendship with her.
“Ms. Masters didn’t just steal money. She stole our hearts and our souls,” Debbie Sawyer, 60, said.
She and her husband, who has cancer, drained all of their personal savings to keep the company afloat.
Masters’ salary was about $50,000 a year; she eventually began to take home more than $50,000 a month, according to court documents.
Masters took home more than $134,000 in her first year on the job in 2003, records show. Within five years, her take-home pay was upward of $700,000 a year. And by 2011, she topped out at more than $1.2 million.
The company fired her in late 2011 after an internal audit uncovered the duplicity.
Prosecutor Winn said that after Masters was fired, she briefly duped people into helping her pay the upkeep on her horses, telling donors she was suffering from late-stage cancer. Investigators found no evidence that Masters ever had cancer or any other life-threatening illness.
Masters later moved to Albuquerque — where she got a job working in accounting. In 2012, she was arrested there and extradited to San Diego County to face embezzlement charges.
A lawsuit allowed the company to seize Masters’ ranch, but it was worth only about $300,000, Richard Sawyer said.
Masters’ embezzlement case is the second largest such case in recent North County history.
The biggest embezzlement was by Annette Yeomans, a former finance executive. She stole nearly $10 million from her employer, Quality Woodworks, a San Marcos manufacturing company, between 2002 and 2007. She spent much of the money on trips, high-stakes gambling and high-end designer items, including 400 pairs of shoes.