Woman accused of embezzling from Lebanon farmer to be tried again

A Willimantic woman accused of embezzling more than $20,000 from a Lebanon farmer who employed her as a bookkeeper is headed to trial for the second time.

On Monday, New London Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein denied Lauri J. Villa's application for accelerated rehabilitation, a diversionary program that allows first-time offenders to clear their criminal records after completing a successful period of probation.

State police charged Villa, 54, with first-degree larceny in November 2014 after her former employer, James Grover, reported he noticed inconsistencies with his checking account and estimated his losses at about $200,000. A state police detective stopped investigating after the losses totaled $20,000, which is the amount needed to prove first-degree larceny. A forensic accountant in the Chief State's Attorney's office calculated the losses at $140,000.

Villa's first trial in March ended in mistrial after a six-member jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. Since then, defense attorney William T. Koch Jr. and prosecutor Stephen M. Carney have not been able to resolve the case with a plea agreement.

In his argument for accelerated rehabilitation, Koch said a member of the jury had told him the panel was split 3-3 during negotiations as to whether Villa was guilty or not guilty. Koch said it is unlikely Villa would reoffend and that the cost of prosecuting and defending the case is mounting, with expenses incurred for attorneys, judges, jury, expert witnesses and other costs. As an assigned counsel, appointed by the office of the Chief Public Defender, Koch said he had spent a lot of time preparing for and at the trial and had probably been paid $25,000 to date.

Grover, the 72-year-old victim, said he still has to work 15-hour days and will never be able to make up the money that was taken.

The prosecutor opposed the accelerated rehabilitation. Carney said the state is sensitive to the costs, but that far fewer than 10 percent of cases go to trial and the state has to be ready to try cases when necessary. If three jurors voted that Villa was not guilty, as reported, "I don't think that means three people thought there was no crime," Carney said.

Judge Strackbein denied the accelerated rehabilitation application, noting trials are expensive, but victims have rights, the state has the right to re-try Villa and Villa has not made any offer to repay Grover. The judge granted Koch's request to withdraw from the case after he said he'd been told he might be a witness at the next trial. She said Villa would be appointed a new lawyer and the case would go back on the trial list.

k.florin@theday.com

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