Portraits of Trusted Bookkeeper Who Stole $340,000 Conflict

Times Staff Writer

To her employers, Leticia Bernabe was a cunning employee who first gained their confidence, then secretly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, nearly forcing them into bankruptcy.

To those closest to her, Bernabe was a tragedy-stricken Philippine immigrant driven to crime because of her blind pursuit of a lifelong dream of opening a restaurant that would serve her native food, her attorney said.

Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Horowitz sentenced Bernabe, 49, to the maximum term of 10 years and eight months in prison after she pleaded guilty to bilking a downtown Los Angeles clothing manufacturer and a West Hollywood advertising firm out of more than $340,000.

The sentence brings an abrupt end to Bernabe's four years as a bookkeeper who did more than balance the books and who did so in a disorganized way that still baffles police and prosecutors. Her eventual arrest could almost have been predicted, officials said.

"She actually drew suspicion to herself, and eventually she would have been found out," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Barbara Stone said. "Greed is funny, and she got caught up in it."

The ease with which Bernabe obtained jobs was startling, and her daring behavior--even when out on bail--was that of a naive person caught up in her crimes, Deputy Dist. Atty. Judy Gray said.

Also surprising is that Bernabe apparently turned to crime at the age of 44, said her attorney, Malcolm McNeil. He said she was distraught over recent deaths in her family, marital problems and an unfulfilled dream of bringing a little bit of the Philippines to Los Angeles.

Quiet, Courteous, Shy

Her neighbors in Glendale described her as a quiet woman, courteous but somewhat shy, and not a likely candidate for being the person whom one police report called "completely incapable of rehabilitation."

"She was a very pleasant person, sort of quiet, but always friendly," said one neighbor, who did not want her named used.

Bernabe's criminal exploits began in 1980 and continued on a relatively small scale for about three years, according to police. She was eventually arrested on a variety of charges, including passing bad checks and stealing credit cards. Before her sentencing on May 30, Bernabe had served a total of about 30 days in county jail for women for those crimes, Gray said.

But in February, 1983, she became more ambitious and, using a phony resume, landed a job as head bookkeeper at R. Doherty International Inc., a Los Angeles-based sportswear manufacturing firm run by a husband and wife, Gray said.

"In the beginning, she couldn't do enough for the company," Kathleen and Richard Doherty told police, according to Bernabe's probation report. "She skillfully gained our confidence and trust."

But as head bookkeeper, Bernabe, who was using the alias Leticia Arcangel, soon began altering checks and depositing the money in her personal bank accounts.

'Simple, Brazen' Method

"Her method was very simple and at the same time very brazen," Los Angeles police Detective Reynaldo Morales said.

Morales said Bernabe sometimes would alter her paychecks or, on several occasions, expense checks for office supplies she had purchased with her own money.

For example, if her paycheck was for $900, Bernabe would alter the amount to read $9,900, Gray said. When the checks were returned to the company, they would be sent to her and, instead of putting them in the files, Bernabe would take them home, Gray said.

"She had a pretty good thing going, but it's hardly the best operation I've seen," Morales said. "I'm kind of amazed she even tried to pull it off. She didn't cover herself."

During the five months that Bernabe embezzled from the sportswear company, she began to make extravagant personal purchases, including jewelry, expensive clothes and a $240,000 town house in the hills north of downtown Glendale.

"She was so open as to show up to work with a $55,000 Porsche," the Dohertys told police. "When questioned about all this extravagance, she advised that her husband was having an affair and (she) caught him. This was (supposed to be) his way of saying he was sorry."

Operation Sours

Her operation soured, however, in July, when Kathleen Doherty saw the company's bank statement on Bernabe's desk and noticed that many checks had been altered and made payable to Bernabe, according to police reports.

"We came so close to losing everything we had worked so hard for," the Dohertys told police. "We had to start all over again to pick up the pieces. . . . It's been over a year and we're still not over the theft."

Bernabe admitted embezzling more than $130,000 from the Dohertys. Because she eventually stopped paying the company's bills, the loss stands at about $200,000, the owners told police.

Two weeks after quitting her job, she was arrested, pleaded not guilty, and was released on $10,000 bail, Detective Morales said.

"The first time I saw her I said 'boy, she's deceiving,' " Morales said. "She gave me the crying-and-tear act, but you could tell something was going on."

Morales' suspicions were shared by Richard Burton, the attorney Bernabe hired at the time of her arrest.

'Flagrant Stealing'

"She was not very intelligent about how she embezzled the money," Burton said. "She was stealing in such a flagrant manner and doing it for some unknown reason. She was bound to get picked up sooner or later."

Three weeks after being released on bail, she prepared another phony resume and, out of 22 applicants, she was hired as head bookkeeper at Advanced Management Systems Inc., a West Hollywood-based advertising firm, police said.

"When I called the reference she supplied me with, the woman on the phone could not say enough good things about (Bernabe), her work habits and her abilities," company Vice President Gene Scher told police.

The woman on the other end of the phone, prosecutor Gray said, was a friend or relative of Bernabe's who agreed to play the role of a former employer.

The first few weeks of work, Bernabe fit in well with the the advertising staff, "even bringing in home-cooked meals for everyone on occasion," Scher told police.

Embezzled $210,000

But seven months later, in February, a routine company audit revealed that Bernabe had embezzled more than $210,000 from the company using the same method she used at R. Doherty International.

"I feel as though I were raped," Scher told police, according to the probation report. "She gained our confidence, became our friend, and then ripped us off with such cruelty that I still have trouble believing it."

Bernabe was arrested two weeks after quitting that job, and was held on $1 million bail.

Sheriff's investigators obtained a search warrant for her Glendale home and found many of the checks she altered, many California driver's licenses--she had at least seven aliases--credit cards in several names from companies ranging from Neiman-Marcus to Gemco, and lease documents for two Mercedes-Benzes and one Porsche, Detective Stone said. Investigators also found escrow papers for the purchase of a large home in the fashionable Los Feliz district, Stone said.

During the investigation, detectives also turned up documents that revealed that Bernabe had bought a large interest in the Q Restaurant and Disco, a nightclub in Hollywood that caters to the Filipino community.

McNeil, the attorney Bernabe hired after her second arrest, said the restaurant "was probably the key to what the whole embezzlement case was all about."

Members of Bernabe's family would not discuss the case, preferring to let McNeil explain the woman's apparent plight--the deaths of her parents, the breakup of her marriage and an unfulfilled dream of opening a Philippine restaurant in Los Angeles.

"I can understand the anger and hostility that the owners of the businesses she stole from have toward her," McNeil said. "But this is really the case of a woman caught in emotional turmoil because of her family and having a dream that she felt she had to pursue. The jewelry, the cars--that was just stuff she had to achieve as part of the larger picture of the restaurant."

'Obsessed With Restaurant'

The attorney said: "Everything came tumbling down in her life. Some people are obsessed with drugs, others money. She was obsessed with opening a restaurant, and all her family problems made her even more driven to do anything to fulfill it. She had been living error-free in Los Angeles for 11 years and then just took a wrong turn."

Jesus Ilagan, a co-owner of the restaurant, said he was approached by Bernabe last year about going into business and said she was excited about remodeling the building in the 1100 block of North Vermont Avenue.

Deputy Stone said neither Ilagan nor any members of Bernabe's family is under investigation.

"She was very nice, very kind, and we could really rely on her," Ilagan said. "She would come in to help out even on weekends to see how the construction was going. She used to drive in a Mercedes, and we thought she was pretty wealthy."

But prosecutor Gray scoffed at McNeil's rationale for Bernabe's string of thefts.

'Just a Thief'

"This is a woman who systematically stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from several companies over many years," Gray said. "I don't believe she had any dream of opening a restaurant. . . . She was just a thief."

McNeil argued Bernabe's case last week in court before the sentence was handed down, noting her "emotional transgressions of the last few years." Gray pressed for a stiff sentence, calling Bernabe "a ruthless person."

Bernabe broke down and began sobbing as Judge Horowitz handed down the maximum sentence, as well as a $20,000 fine. The money will go into a fund for victims of violent crime.

The companies could file civil suit in an attempt to recover the stolen money.

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