OAKHURST — A former Coarsegold resident who admitted to embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from an Oakhurst business has been ordered to make full restitution.
Heather Marie Stieler, 48, who used to be the bookkeeper for Fullmer’s Appliance Repair, agreed to a plea deal on June 20, 2019, resulting in 10 felony convictions, including embezzlement, forgery and grand theft.
As part of the agreement, Stieler was ordered to pay the business she victimized more than $44,000 in restitution.
She also received an 8-year, 4-month suspended sentence, with five years of probation — and must make $1,200 monthly restitution payments to Fullmer’s.
Stieler was first arrested on Apr. 25, 2018.
Six months earlier, in November 2017, Madera County Sheriff’s detectives were contacted by Christine Fullmer-Smith at Fullmer’s Appliance Repair, regarding suspected embezzlement at the local, family-owned business.
MCSO Detective Neil Cuthbert, who investigates white collar crime in eastern Madera County, said Stieler had been “playing a big shell game” with the business’s various bank accounts.
Fullmer’s Appliance first opened in Oakhurst in 1982. Christine Fullmer-Smith, who turned over ownership of the business to her son Ryan in 2011 but remained the shop’s business manager, first discovered Stieler’s bookkeeping discrepancies when her own paycheck bounced after Stieler had to travel out of town unexpectedly for a family emergency.
After the full extent of the embezzlement was uncovered, the business owner initially tried to work with Stieler to allow her to repay the embezzled funds.
“She made two random payments” totaling about $1,300, according to Smith-Fullmer. “When she stopped paying, we were forced to call the Sheriff’s Office.”
A subsequent investigation by MCSO detectives confirmed Stieler had committed “identity fraud, embezzlement and theft,” according to Detective Cuthbert.
Smith-Fullmer said that initially the family thought just $4,000 had been stolen. “Then we figured out it was $44,000.”
Ryan Fullmer said that “while it’s been a struggle to make up for the losses, I’m so thankful the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s office worked so hard on the case, especially to make sure that restitution was part of the sentence.”
Detective Cuthbert said small business owners, “even if they use bookkeepers or accountants, still need to be very vigilant and active in monitoring their own accounts.
“$44,000 is a significant loss for a small business to absorb,” he added. “I’m a small business owner myself so I know how devastating a loss like that could be.”
When not working for the MCSO, Cuthbert runs a private consulting business and also teaches at a Bay Area police academy. “As a business owner, you’ve got to keep a close eye on your books and all of your bank accounts all the time,” he cautioned.
“We were quite devastated when this happened to us,” said Fullmer-Smith, who owns Designs by Christine and Custom Design Construction & Interiors in Oakhurst — and is also the current president of the Rotary Club of Oakhurst Sierra.
“Originally the family wanted to keep this quiet for business reasons but after all we’ve been through, we really feel that it would be a disservice to our community not to spread awareness that this can happen to any business, small or large,” Fullmer-Smith said this week.
“The people that do this are usually trusted members of your staff,” she added. “Heather was trusted. We considered her like a part of our family.”
Stieler reportedly now lives in the Ripon area. Detective Cuthbert said that if she does not live up to the terms of her restitution agreement, she is subject rearrest and serving out her sentence in the Department of Corrections.
To date, Heather Stieler has spent just a single day in jail for her crimes.