NEW ORLEANS -- For Ron Schaefer, former owner of the Magnolia Gardens apartment complex in eastern New Orleans, the case was simple.
His former employee Paula Veltri Lewis pleaded guilty to felony theft last year after admitting to stealing $50,000 from him. As part of her sentence, she agreed to pay back the full amount as restitution.
Then Schaefer received his first check. The amount was $100.
“I couldn’t believe it. I called the Judicial Administration Office and they said, ‘No this is not a mistake, this is what it's going to be,’” Schaefer said.
When Lewis was sentenced in August, New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davallier placed her on five years of inactive probation as a first-offender, meaning that not only did Lewis avoid jail time, she doesn't have to report to a probation officer.
Davalier also ordered Lewis to pay full restitution, a standard element of punishment in theft convictions.
But it's the timetable for payment that has Schaefer raising questions.
At the rate of $100-a-month imposed by Davalier, it would take 41 years and eight months for Lewis to repay the stolen money.
The math is not lost on District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
“In light of the age of the victim, who is in his 60s, and the defendant, who is in her 50s, there is a very, very good possibility that over the next 30 or 20 or 30 years, they may not be here,” Cannizzaro said.
When told that Schaefer would get his money back when he's about 102 years old, Cannizzaro had offered one-word response: “Ridiculous.”
Schaefer said neither he or Lewis is likely to last long enough to see the stolen money repaid.
“I'm not going to live for the next 41 years and I don't think she will either,” he said.
Schaefer has some sympathy for anyone caught up in the justice system. The theft came about after he was arrested for DWI. He authorized Lewis, his former apartment manager, to use the Magnolia Gardens bank account to pay his bail in cash.
What Schaefer didn't learn until it was too late was that Lewis later went back to the clerk of court's office and took the money for herself.
“This was a very nervy crime, to walk into the clerk's office where she could have gotten arrested right then on the spot,” Schaefer said.
In November, prosecutors filed a motion either increase the restitution payments or revoke Lewis' probation. Flemings-Davallier denied the motion.
The judge did not respond directly to requests for comment, which is standard for judges, but Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik issued a statement that pointed out that the guilty plea by Lewis was the result of a plea deal.
Kazik also noted that before determining a restitution schedule, Davallier held a hearing on Lewis’ finances and determined that she is on a fixed income that includes social security disability payments.
“The Court found the defendant unable to pay the $50,000 up front and set a monthly payment schedule based on her financial evidence presented,” Kazik wrote.
Schaefer said he was aware of Lewis’ financial report, but said he remains upset that she has never given any explanation about what happened to the $50,000.
Schaefer said he does not expect to be paid the full amount in a lump sum, adding that he'd settle for being repaid over the five years of Lewis' probation.
If she’s unable to meet that schedule, however, Schaefer said he's OK with seeing Lewis go to jail.
“This is not a debt, it's a crime. If you steal from me, and you can't pay me back, you need to be in jail,” he said.
Since WWL-TV brought the case to the DA's attention, it is being re-visited. A spokesman for the office said prosecutors are going back to court to try and contest the sentence as illegal.
“He has not been fully compensated for the losses that he has suffered and that, again, is unfortunate,” Cannizzaro said. “And that is sort of what makes this a compounding of the wrong that he initially suffered.”
Lewis could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Eric Bopp, said that his client doesn't have the money to pay at a faster rate.
“There are no debtors prison in Louisiana,” he said.
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