Managers at didn’t think Lizeth Ochoa was “overly gifted” as a clerk because she was always a week behind in her work. Turns out she was smart enough to be taking money undetected for eight years.
Lizeth Guadalupe Ochoa—a 13-year employee at the La Mesa dealership—faces a four-year prison term when she is sentenced in August, having pleaded guilty to embezzling at least $500,000, court records show.
Ochoa, 35, was arrested in January, released and then rearrested Feb. 22 after La Mesa police Detective Sean Snow presented evidence that she had taken $840,000 from the well-known business since 2003, records indicate.
“She pleaded guilty to her two charges back on May 24,” said Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office. “She will be sentenced on August 6 at 1:30 p.m. in Department 31” in downtown San Diego.
Her felony counts are grand theft and embezzlement by employee.
Ochoa, a bookkeeper who collected cash and checks from various departments, “was well-liked by everyone at the dealership, and they had no concerns about her work,” Snow wrote in a memo supporting an arrest warrant.
But after she went on maternity leave in November 2011, an employee who did bank reconciliations “realized something was wrong with the accounts,” Snow wrote in February.
Candice Padilla, the fellow employee, discovered that several large deposits had never been made and reported this to Carin Chambers, the Drew Ford office manager.
Ochoa engaged in “deposit lapping,” Snow said—stealing the cash from one week’s deposit, altering the deposit slips and replacing the missing cash with checks from the next week’s deposit.
Chambers had noticed that Ochoa was usually about a week behind in her work, Snow said, but attributed it to the volume of deposits involved and “the fact that Ochoa was not overly gifted with bookkeeping skills.”
But her scheme had been under way for many years.
“After Chambers reviewed the bank records and deposits for 2011, she went back and checked the bank records for the past several years,” Snow wrote. “It became clear that Ochoa had been stealing from Drew Ford since 2003.”
Her theft might have gone unnoticed had she not gone on maternity leave.
On Halloween Day—Oct. 31, 2011—Ochoa was about eight months’ pregnant when she began having contractions at work, Snow wrote. The next day, she went into labor.
“Instead of leaving for the day, Ochoa remained at her desk and worked on the deposits until [about noon],” the detective said. “Ochoa then left work and had the baby” about three hours later.
A month before going on maternity leave, Ochoa’s computer was replaced and its old hard drive destroyed. Drew Ford could find no ledgers, notes or other evidence of theft at Ochoa’s desk—searched after the embezzlement was discovered.
But on Jan. 4, Judge Gary Bubis signed search warrants for Ochoa’s home in Mission Valley and her credit history.
On Jan. 11, along with five other police detectives and officers, Snow searched the home—and the master bedroom closet, where he found a Burberry shoulder bag containing a Drew Ford business envelope with “yellow carbon copies from bank deposit slips.”
“These were carbon copies of the deposits Ochoa had altered in order to hide her theft,” Snow said.
He found dates and numbers on adding machine tape.
“Ochoa had not been able to balance these deposits and cover her theft because she left work [to] go on maternity leave,” he wrote. “I added the individual figures listed on the tape, and the total came to $842,501.93. The amount missing from Drew Ford is $840,494.91.”
In a request to increase Ochoa’s bail, Snow on Feb. 21 noted that none of the money had been recovered and that Ochoa—a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico—had made 17 trips to Mexico in the previous 18 months.
He also said he found evidence that Ochoa had sent thousands of dollars to “unknown persons in Mexico.”
Ochoa and her husband, Marco Aguilar, have several bank accounts in Mexico with balances of “upwards of $100,000,” Snow said. “Ochoa was married in Mexico and has family in Mexicali.” Superior Court records show no criminal charges against Aguilar.
Ochoa, who is being held at Las Colinas women’s jail in Santee, had originally faced 10 years in prison, the DA’s Office said. She was prosecuted by deputy district attorney John Cross.
Two days after her initial Jan. 11 arrest, Ochoa was released from jail.
“We’re working with the District Attorney’s Office on the investigation,” police Lt. Matt Nicholass said in mid-January. “[Detective] Sean Snow is still working on the case.”
Nicholass at the time said the DA’s Office still had questions that needed to be resolved before charges could be brought.
In January, general manager Bill Drew of the 84-year-old dealership declined to share details on the case. Patch now is seeking his comments on the recent guilty plea.
In a plea statement filed May 24, Ochoa handwrote: “[I] did unlawfully take and steal cash from my employer in excess of $500,000 and I did so being a clerk.
“I did fraudulently appropriate for my own use, and I did [secretly] with fraudulent intent to appropriate to my own use money in excess of $500,000—said money was under my control by virtue of my employment as a clerk.”
Before her guilty plea, Ochoa had been set for trial today—June 13.