EVANSTON — A former director for Uinta Senior Citizens, Inc. has been sentenced for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars during her time overseeing the Evanston and Bridger Valley senior centers.
Sarah Kristine Blakeman was in United States District Court in Cheyenne on Thursday, Jan. 3, where Judge Nancy D. Freudenthal sentenced her to 57 months in federal prison and ordered Blakeman to pay $605,590.31 in restitution.
Blakeman was indicted by a federal grand jury in August 2018. According to the indictment, Blakeman “knowingly and unlawfully embezzled and intentionally misapplied property worth at least $5,000 that was in the care, custody or control of Uinta Senior Citizens, Inc.”
However, Amy Kelly, who served as director from March 2016 to August of last year, said the special agent assigned to the case indicated the actual amount Blakeman embezzled was closer to $1 million.
Blakeman worked at the senior center for 15 years before she was escorted out of the building by law enforcement on Feb. 10, 2016.
“When we first found some real evidence that this was going on and were able to have the board look at it and realize, ‘Wow, we have a problem,’” Kelly said. “None of us thought it was going to be more than a few thousand dollars, truly.”
But during the two-year investigation, Kelly said, it was shocking to learn more and more theft had taken place.
“Then when we opened Pandora’s box, so to speak, and found all the checks and credit card receipts … it was overwhelming, the evidence. Like, ‘Oh my God, this is huge.’ Our jaws would drop sometimes in astonishment,” Kelly said.
Doris McIntire, former director of transportation at the senior center, worked there for 14 years; three of those were while Blakeman was director. McIntire said before the sentencing, she and others met with the federal prosecutor who told them Blakeman’s plea deal included 18 months in prison. She told the Herald she was very disappointed to hear that Blakeman wouldn’t have to serve much time for her crimes.
“We couldn’t believe it,” McIntire said. “We had to walk out of there thinking, “At least there’s some jail time.”
Kelly said she felt similarly.
“It was very stressful,” she said, “but it was very much … I think … I feel that this is something a lot of seniors here and in the valley knew what was going on … and worried that she would get a slap on the wrist. … It was disappointing at the time.”
During the sentencing hearing, several people spoke in support of the center, including Kelly, McIntire, board chair Casey Davis and director of programs Barb Bauer. Blakeman’s nephew, Jacob Blakeman, spoke in support of his aunt. The court also read letters both supporting the senior center and supporting Sarah Blakeman.
But then something unusual happened, McIntire said. United States federal sentencing guidelines use a sentencing table with a point and tier system. Judges have some discretion within those guidelines. After hearing from the victims in court on Thursday, Judge Freudenthal added six points to Blakeman’s original assessment, allowing for a significantly harsher punishment — 57 months instead of the 18 originally agreed upon by attorneys from both sides.
“We were elated,” McIntire said. “We were just elated.” Kelly also said the increase in prison time is unusual.
“… The letters were convincing,” Kelly said. “We were told that a lot of things were unprecedented that happened in court that day.”
She said she thinks the judge heard the extent of the harm Blakeman caused the center and added more time, which Kelly is happy about. “We were actually shocked,” she said, “pleasantly surprised, elated.”
Kelly said investigators found evidence that Blakeman had been misusing senior center funds as far back as 2011.