A former employee of a Columbia-based food distributor and a Reisterstown man pleaded guilty yesterday in Howard Circuit Court to conspiring to embezzle more than $260,000 from the company last fall.
Former U.S. Foodservice employee Patrick J. Belzner, 30, and an accomplice, Christopher T. St. Ange, 49, each faced 10 charges of theft stemming from a scheme unhinged by an alert bank employee.
"It's a lot of money," said Assistant State's Attorney Bernard L. Taylor. "It's a big case [in terms of] the amount they took and the time period they took it in."
The theft occurred during the last two weeks of October.
Belzner and St. Ange pleaded guilty in an agreement with prosecutors, who dropped the remaining charges. Sentencing is scheduled Dec. 16.
Belzner, who took a job with U.S. Foodservice in July 1998, began embezzling the money in October -- after the company was finished with an internal review of accounting procedures, Taylor said. Belzner managed transportation payments for the food-distribution giant and established a fake account using the name of a contractor to U.S. Foodservice.
Belzner soon began requesting checks in large amounts for the fake company. Taylor said that Belzner intercepted the checks before they were mailed, giving them to St. Ange during meetings "on the side of the road."
St. Ange deposited the checks at area banks into checking accounts bearing his name and that of the fake company.
A NationsBank employee grew suspicious of several large deposits -- one check was for $95,409.11 -- into relatively new accounts. The employee alerted officials at U.S. Foodservice, who started an investigation that quickly focused on Belzner, Taylor said.
Investigators soon discovered that Belzner had written eight checks to the fake company, totaling $262,627.13, Taylor said.
NationsBank froze St. Ange's accounts. When the Reisterstown man couldn't withdraw the money, he contacted bank officials who lured him to their offices on South Charles Street in Baltimore, where he was arrested by police.
David Ash, a lawyer who represents Belzner, said his client didn't intend to defraud U.S. Foodservice.
"He made a mistake and got in over his head," Ash said.
A lawyer representing St. Ange said his client would pay back the money before his sentencing in December. Yesterday, St. Ange wrote U.S. Foodservice a check for $20,000.
"My client is trying to rectify the situation," said St. Ange's lawyer, Alvin A. Alston. "We're hoping for the best in the end."
Prosecutors aren't sure why the pair initiated the scheme. Belzner told police that St. Ange intended to pay back the money when "investments in Nigeria came in," Taylor said.
"I wish there was more that could have been done with" the case, Taylor said. "I want to know why. It's always nice to know why."