Crime and Justice

Woman who embezzled $2.2 million sentenced to 4 years in prison

A former employee embezzled $2.2 million from the farm supply business.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Northeast Agricultural Sales, Inc. filed for bankruptcy. The company has not filed for bankruptcy. VTDigger regrets the error.

BURLINGTON — A St. Johnsbury woman who embezzled $2.2 million from her employer over a decade to fuel a gambling addiction was sentenced Tuesday to more than four years in prison.

Jennifer Dwyer, 50, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in October as part of a plea deal.

On Tuesday, Judge Christina Reiss sentenced Dwyer to 51 months behind bars, with three years of supervision after her release. That was on the low end of federal guidelines, which recommended a 51-63 month incarceration. 

Dwyer was the bookkeeper for a small farm supply business called Northeast Agricultural Sales Inc. in Lyndonville. From 2007 to 2017, she regularly re-routed money —  in $2,000 to $3,000 increments — to her personal account, using the cash largely to gamble and pay off debts.

Meanwhile, the company was struggling to stay afloat. The owner told Dwyer he would not forgive her.

Dwyer’s lawyer, Natasha Sen, argued in favor of the shorter sentence, emphasizing the power an addiction can have in driving bad decisions. She noted that a gambling addiction in particular can be devastating, because people see their negative behavior as the only way out of the negative behavior.

“It’s a situation so unlike substance addiction in that respect,” Sen said. “People think if they just play once more, they can finally win it all back.”

But Reiss questioned if paying the company back was ever Dwyer’s intent, noting that over the past decade, Dwyer never tried to pay the company back even a little, and instead, just continued to steal more and more.

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“Not everyone with a gambling addiction steals $2 million from their employer,” Reiss said.

Sen said once Dwyer began stealing, it became very hard to stop. The lawyer said this was “by all measures” a devastating case that wreaked havoc on not only Dwyer’s life, but the lives of people around her.

“One of the first things she told me was ‘I’ve been wanting to tell the Choinieres (the family that owns Northeast Agricultural Sales) for so long,’” Sen said. “But the only thing that could stop her was getting caught.”

Reiss said clinical evaluations made it clear that she wasn’t acting out of greed, or any malicious intent. Dwyer did, however, make some big purchases over the past several years — including a 2015 GMC Sierra 2500 truck and a 2016 Sea-Doo watercraft.

However, restitution from the liquidation of Dwyer’s assets will only come to $85,000 — a small portion of the more than $2 million that she stole over the years.

“This is a troubling case, because it’s one where the criminal justice system can’t fix the problem that’s brought us here,” Reiss said.

Then Dwyer stood and addressed the judge herself. She began by talking about what a great mentor Jim Choiniere was when she started at the company in 1998, and how he would’ve given the shirt off his back to any of his employees without hesitation.

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am I messed this up,” Dwyer said. “I never meant to deceive anyone, but I recognize what I’ve done, and I know I need to fix it.”

She said that once she gets out of jail, she hopes to work with the elderly and get a fresh start in life, this time as a “better person.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Doyle told the judge that embezzlement is, by nature, theft of money that someone was trusted with. But what made this case stand out, he argued, is the number of victims.

With the entire Choiniere family crowded into the courtroom behind him, along with several of employees, Doyle told the story of just how much the business has struggled over the years, as it has become harder and harder to maintain the farm supply business. He explained how the Choinieres have had to take out big loans that they’re still making huge interest payments on. All the while, they had no idea Dwyer was siphoning money out of their accounts each month.

“How can you watch your employer have to borrow money just to make ends meet, while you’re cooking the books and taking money for yourself?” Reiss asked.

Jim Choiniere told the judge there were times when his sons questioned how Dwyer could afford her lifestyle with the salary they paid her. But Choiniere said he waved them off because he was “clouded by trust.” He said he had planned to be retired by now, but that is no longer possible.

Choiniere addressed Dwyer directly before he sat down.

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“Jennifer, when you’re in jail, as you close your eyes each night, think of this: You will never be forgiven by me or my family.”

Finally, Reiss walked the lawyers through the sentencing guidelines, noting that the embezzlement charge would be increased several levels because the amount stolen, which is estimated at between $1.5 million and $3.5 million, was an abuse of trust and caused the victims “significant financial hardship.” The sentence was also lowered several levels because of Dwyer’s apology for her actions, and her lack of a criminal history.

“Dig deep in yourself, face forward, and live a life that shows you put this behind you,” Reiss said in closing. “No one is going to benefit if you stay stuck in this mess you’ve created.”

With that, she sentenced Dwyer to 51 months in prison. Dwyer is expected to self-surrender on March 24 to begin her sentence.

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Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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Tim Vincent

Another “addiction” excuse.
“I didn’t mean to do it. I’m addicted” they all seem to cry.

Owen Farnsworth

2.2 million dollars / 51 months works out to be just 1 month in jail for every $43,138.00 stolen from the Choiniere family. Dwyer destroyed their business and left them in debt unable to retire. Once again, the Vermont Legal System treats the criminal as a victim. If the legal system can’t “fix ” this crime then perhaps a more suitable punishment might deter others considering embezzlement.

patricia jedlicka

“expected to self-surrender…” in March!!! Ah, it’s good to be a criminal in VT.

Teddy Hopkins

$2.2 million divided by 4 years is over $500,000/year realized. Not a bad pay for someone who will be 54 years old coming out free. Then what? Perhaps a disability claim in 2024 and she can ride the free wave for the rest of her life????

Tori Hudson

“made it clear that she wasn’t acting out of greed, or any malicious intent” – oh, good grief. So, let’s see – she keep stealing (monthly) from her employer for 10 years because she thought it was a generous thing to do for them. Because she had all good intentions and purposes. Oh, and while the employer and the employer’s family suffer, she’s buying a big truck and a water craft. Of course, no one who gambles has any issues with greed. Greed is what drives the addiction.

Rich Lachapelle

“She said that once she gets out of jail, she hopes to work with the elderly” …at least she gave some early warning to the elderly to politely turn down her offer of “help”. This sentence may still be regarded as light given the damage she did, but the Federal Court at least treats embezzlement as a crime. Vermont District Courts have a standing policy that is well known to the criminal element: IF you get caught, you MAY have to pay back SOME of the money and rarely invoke incarceration. And lets be medically honest, gambling and stealing are NOT ADDICTIONS. They may be obsessions or compulsions but do not fit the true definition, which gets thrown around far too casually in these days where victimhood is a badge of honor.

Tom Anderson

This person, no matter what the reason, destroys a family, business, fellow employees and gets a slap on the wrist. Restitution – what a joke.

All in line with the way of the world where white collar crime actually totals more of an impact than “traditional crime” by almost 4x. https://www.huffpost.com/highline/article/white-collar-crime/

This is a sentencing travesty. This person should never be allowed in a position of trust again, “taking care of the elderly”, reeks of impending disaster. I read the part published from her apology – this judge is naive beyond words thinking that was an actual apology.

And yet our prisons are full of people whose crimes only really hurt them.

I wouldn’t consider this a deterrent for all the future embezzlers.

She had a good lawyer, I’m guessing it wasn’t a public defender – where did she get the money for that?

Jerry Kilcourse

Have her gambling debts been documented? If so who or what was she gambling on? Did the judge just take her word that these where in fact gambling debts? She obviously spent some of the money on herself. Is the money somewhere else? We need more information.

Lori Cohen

Actually, Rich Lachapelle, gambling is a known and documented addiction. It is still no reason to excuse her from having to make full restitution. She may never be able to accomplish that but should never personally received another tax refund until its done.

Martin Dole

Shame on her for stealing but the business owner should also have better internal controls. This keeps happening over and over and is sad.

robert bristow-johnson

I wonder if Jennifer Dwyer is related to Ruth Dwyer of Thetford Vermont?

*and last candidate to run against against Howard Dean for guv. “Take Back Vermont”

Julia Purdy

she kept meaning to confess to her employer but didn’t because she would get caught??? for 10 years?? she cooked the books but she didn’t mean to steal?? Talk about disingenuous! This individual is a talented con artist who must never be employed in a position of trust again. Go to work helping the elderly? You mean, like the forgetful little old lady who lives alone and is so grateful to have a helping hand? The elderly of all people are the most vulnerable to crooks and scams. The judge needs to take a crash course in the psychology of personality disorders. Much as we want to be kind, we cannot give these con artists a pass.

John Farrell

“JUSTICE?” gone wrong

Margaret Lipscomb

My understanding is we have all these plea deals because then there does not have to be a trial, and the Vermont justice system does not have the capacity to hold all the trials it really should. Can’t we fix this problem at the root (increase capacity) instead of letting many criminals off with such light sentences? If you took this amount of money from someone else for 10 years you should serve 10 years. Others have served ten years for less.

Robert Gifford

She might have taken 3.5 million dollars and she gets 51 months? Where can I sign up? Thats almost 69K per month in jail. Where did it all go? She likely has a stash buried in the woods. She will get out and move to Vegas with her ill gotten gains. Meanwhile we are paying 50-60K per year to keep people in jail for victim-less crimes. Way to go Cristina, way to encourage stealing. Our system is so broken, perhaps Trump will pardon her?

John Francis

I am a recovering gambling addict myself, so I understand what is involved with the addictive side of gambling.

But to steal $2 million from a business is insane. She obviously used some of the money for large end purchases for herself – truck and ski doo. More than likely, she was using quite a bit of the money to make her life more comfortable – such as paying off credit cards due to excessive spending, going out to meals a lot, etc.

If I was the business owner, I would file a civil suit and try to take her for every penny that is going to earn for the rest of her life. The criminal system let down the victims and enabled another perpetrator.

 

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