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Office clerk sentenced for stealing from blind attorney

A woman who admitted stealing about $24,000 from a blind Ashland attorney was sentenced Friday to 13 months in prison.

Then, the attorney she stole from served her with a civil suit seeking $2.2 million for the damages to him and his business.

"I don't expect to ever see a dime of it," said Bruce Harrell, whose Ashland law practice primarily deals with family law cases.

He hopes, however, that civil and criminal cases against Marissa Renee Wren, 26, will help bring attention to embezzling cases and protect vulnerable people.

Wren, 26, pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree forgery and charges of first-degree aggravated theft, fraudulent use of a credit card and second-degree forgery. She entered her pleas in Jackson County Circuit Court Friday morning and acknowledged that her thefts violated a professional responsibility she had toward Harrell, who was vulnerable because he had to trust her, his assistant, to pay his bills.

"This is the financial equivalent of assaulting a person in a wheelchair, over and over," prosecutor David Orr said in calling for a stringent sentence. "This is a case for people to see how the justice system serves the vulnerable."

Harrell said he hired Wren, then a 22-year-old high school graduate, in May 2004, planning to train her for a career in law offices and in the process get a loyal assistant.

But within weeks, unbeknownst to him, she began presenting checks she said were for legitimate expenses, but were actually made out to her, Orr said. Harrell suspected nothing for more than a year, until he got a call from a credit card company demanding payment on a balance he didn't know existed. Wren ultimately admitted she had gotten a $5,000 cash advance on the card.

Investigations by Ashland police and a bookkeeper Harrell hired found Wren had taken roughly $24,000.

Attorneys worked out a plea deal in 2006, but Wren failed to appear in court. This spring Ashland police finally tracked her to Kelso, Wash., and persuaded her to turn herself in after she gave birth to her son.

Orr recommended Wren be sentenced to at least 13 months with no alternatives to incarceration. He said he would have asked for more, but Harrell asked that Wren be treated with mercy.

"I did wrong, but I tried to make it right," she said in apologizing to her former employer in court.

Her attorney, Paul Beneke, noted that Wren's father paid back more than $17,000, based on the thefts detailed in an Ashland police report. Now she is responsible for caring for her 6-month-old son and her younger brother, who has Down's syndrome, Beneke said.

"I don't want to be taken away from my son," Wren said tearfully.

Judge Ray White sentenced her to seven 13-month prison terms — one for each first-degree forgery charge. They will be served concurrently, so if she earns credit for good behavior while incarcerated, she can be released in less than a year.

"I'm sorry for this, sorry for your child, but when you get engaged in criminal activity, this is what happens," White said.

"I hope this will help her learn and will protect other people who might hire her," Harrell said after Friday's sentencing.

Harrell said that in addition to the outright theft Wren admitted to, he also saw a steep drop in his business while she worked for him. At the time, he thought it was just a slow season, but now believes her bad attitude alienated potential clients.

Lost revenues forced Harrell to rely on credit cards for living expenses and he is now $90,000 in debt and trying to rebuild his practice, he said.

Her thefts also undermined his trust in people, he said.

"The impact emotionally is difficult to describe to someone who is not blind," he wrote in a statement that Orr read in court. "I have to trust people in a way I would not in a sighted relationship."

State law on civil cases enables victims to seek three times the amount lost in cases of financial abuse of disabled people, so totaling the theft, lost revenue and indirect harm from Wren's actions, Harrell arrived at the multimillion-dollar claim, he said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.