Allison McKenzie, 38, the wife of former town Police Chief Chris McKenzie, pleaded guilty to 77 counts of embezzlement in Superior Court before Judge John O. Craig III and a courtroom full of her supporters.
“You are pleading guilty to 77 counts of embezzlement, and the maximum possible punishment — an amount I could not give you if I wanted to — is 2,310 months or somewhere around 170 some years,” Craig told her. “Are you in fact guilty of these charges?”
“Yes, I am,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland called SBI Agent Andrew Pappas, who testified of an investigation that uncovered years of deception and theft from her former employer, Pinehurst dentist Dr. G.R. Horton, between early 2005 and June of 2011.
Over the years, according to the investigation, patients were encouraged to pay in cash or offered big discounts to do so, which McKenzie then pocketed. Cash amounts not deposited grew until the business itself was in financial danger. Horton’s own financial situation plummeted.
“We’ve had to borrow money and extend ourselves to keep the business going,” Horton said. “We borrowed against our house personally. We haven’t put anything away toward retirement for some years now.”
After his wife discovered the thefts, all that changed.
“I was hurt, felt a little violated. It was a pretty sad day. End of a relationship and the beginning of this,” he said. “After the initial shock, it explained a lot of issues. We are still fighting our way out of it. Sometimes you say ‘She should be in jail for a long time.’ Sometimes ‘I want my money.’”
Defense attorney Michael Rowland asked Horton if he’d give Allison McKenzie a chance to make restitution.
“Sure, if I believed it serious and doable,” the dentist said. “I have no interest in her suffering at all.”
In court, testimony showed McKenzie used the money over the years on personal items such as clothes and family trips to the beach and mountains.
A former teacher, a neighbor, and an employer each told how the McKenzies had reformed their lives. Rowland read a letter she’d written the Hortons.
“I am so sorry for the hurt I caused you and your family. You were both so good to me, gave me a wonderful career,” she said. “It makes me sick I was so lost on such a dark path. I use this experience to build bridges. My girls have been exposed to a dreadful situation and have learned to be better people. With my last breath I will be trying to make this situation right.”
Rowland told the court he had $50,000 from friends and family in his trust account as a start on restitution.
Strickland said there needed to be rehabilitation, needed to be restitution, but also there needed to be some prison time.
Craig faced a dilemma: prison would mean slim chances of repayment.
“Does the victim want an active sentence?” he mused, and asked, “My question is, if I were to give her a string of active sentences do you think that would assist Dr. Horton? … What if prison makes the family even more destitute?”
The judge turned to the dentist for help.
“Dr Horton do you want me to put this defendant in prison for any length of time?” Craig asked. “You understand it will probably make it harder to pay you.”
“Restitution is my key, whatever serves that…” the dentist replied after some thought. “I go back and forth on this. I am never going to be made whole, the way I look at it. I am having a difficult time. I don’t sit around wanting Allison to suffer. … I have no interest in making her suffer.”
Craig consolidated the 77 counts into 25 for sentencing and found mitigating factors.
“Dr. Horton, I too have gone back and forth on this,” the judge said. “I think she is truly remorseful. Part of me wants to give her a suspended sentence … and place her on probation, (but) sentencing has to be used as a deterrent. There are consequences for committing felonies like this, particularly when they go over a long period of time.”
In the end, Craig sentenced McKenzie to up to five months in prison, 60 months probation and ordered her to repay $300,000 — a minimum of $500 a month — in addition to the $50,000 already collected.
Probation officers may increase that upon review of her financial situation.
“Ms. McKenzie, you know that I could have put you in prison essentially for the rest of your life,” Craig said. “I am trying to be merciful because of what these ladies said on your behalf. I want you to spend the next few months in the prison system so you get a taste of it so that you will never want to return.”