Two former employees of the Tehachapi Cemetery District entered no contest pleas to charges of embezzlement last week in the Bakersfield branch of Kern County Superior Court.
The case involved the unlawful use of Tehachapi Cemetery District funds to pay for personal expenses, primarily through purchases for personal items made using credit cards issued to and chargeable to the district.
According to Joseph A. Kinzel, assistant district attorney for the Kern County District Attorney's Office, former District Manager Dennis Lutge entered a no contest plea to felony grand theft/embezzlement on May 3. The terms of the plea include Lutge being placed on felony probation for three years, and restitution being ordered at $80,000.
"Should Lutge successfully pay full restitution, and comply with all rules of probation, including a requirement that there be no new law violations, then he would be eligible to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor after serving one and a half years on felony probation if he were to bring such a motion before the court," Kinzel said.
Sentencing is set for June 1 in Department 14.
"No additional jail time was required as a condition of the plea, though a violation of probation would subject him to additional jail time," Kinzel said.
Kinzel said Lutge's co-defendant, Brooke Cantwell, who served as the office manager, entered a no contest plea on April 22 to felony grand theft/embezzlement. The terms of the plea included three years of felony probation and an agreed upon restitution of $5,000.
"After two years of probation, if the restitution has been paid in full and other probation terms have been satisfied, then she may have the charge reduced to a misdemeanor if she brings such a motion before the court," Kinzel said.
Cantwell faces no additional jail time required as a condition of the plea, though a violation of probation would subject her to additional jail time. She was sentenced consistent with the terms of the plea on May 20.
Current Cemetery District District Manager Danny Brown said he was hired in 2017 to oversee operations and assist in the investigation of the pair.
According to Brown, Lutge and Cantwell embezzled well over $350,000 from the district during a period of more than three and a half years.
"Through the investigation, we found that both parties had knowledge of each other's actions," Brown said.
Brown also said that most of the embezzled funds have been recovered through insurance bond carriers. Financially, Brown said, the loss of funds was initially a great detriment to the district.
"We were barely able to make payroll the first month or two. As time when on, we started being more fiscally responsible. Through prudent management and fiscal accountability, we were better able to budget district funds," Brown said.