WILLMAR, Minn. — A bookkeeper accused of thefts that caused two businesses owned by New London brothers to fail, with the loss of 10 jobs, is headed to prison.
Melanie Beth Daniel, 51, of Mounds View, will spend 49 months on the fifth of five counts of theft by swindle at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee.
Daniel had pleaded guilty to the five charges earlier this month in Kandiyohi County District Court as part of a plea agreement. District Judge Jennifer Fischer on Monday, Oct. 25, ordered that Daniel serve a minimum of 32⅔ months in prison, with the remainder on supervised release.
Daniel was initially charged with 35 counts of theft by swindle and 15 theft charges for taking money from Lake Country Crane and Wachtler Inc., both of New London, spanning a period from 2014 to 2019.
“You stole. You are a felon. You are going to prison,” Fischer told the defendant shortly before issuing the sentence.
Paul Wachtler, who started the company in 1964 that his sons took over, said their accountant estimates that Daniel fraudulently spent somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000.
Daniel had been hired in 2012 by Wachtler when the company’s accountant urged him to get someone with computer skills to manage the books of the growing business. As Daniel was a minister’s wife, “we had full faith and confidence” in her, Wachtler told the court.
Daniel spent funds on everything from her child’s college tuition and family bills to airline tickets, trips overseas, concerts and entertainment venues.
“As I was creating my spreadsheet off of these credit card accounts, it made me physically ill,” Assistant Kandiyohi County Attorney Suelana Kinney told the court.
The prosecutor said she reviewed a Capital One credit card for a 54-month period and tallied total purchases of $523,627.85, with the Wachtlers paying $489,075.93 of the amount. Kinney cited expenditures on the card for everything from the Wisconsin Dells and Europe Rail to Ticketmaster, Amazon, Universal Studio Vacations and Broadway Across America.
“This is not just theft. This is someone living the life of luxury and draining these people’s businesses,” Kinney said.
Realistically, she said, the families will never get full restitution for the losses.
“And no way they are going to get the last few years of their lives back the way they were. They will never be made whole again,” Kinney said in asking for a prison sentence.
“This large amount of theft is no longer considered property crimes,” Fischer told Daniel. “You have devastated two families.”
Daniel told the families of brothers Cheyne Wachtler and Nathan Wachtler and their father, Paul, that she was “very sorry and remorseful.”
She asked the judge to allow her to serve probation and complete a graduate program to become a counselor to help others, care for her children and to earn money to make reimbursements to the victims.
Daniel told the court that she had stolen the money in an attempt to keep her marriage after learning of her husband’s same-sex attraction and infidelity. She said she had been sexually abused as a teenager and experienced abandonment by her parents' divorce when she was young.
Her fear of abandonment “caused me to desperately cling to a marriage that was unraveling,” Daniel told the court.
The judge also ordered Daniel to serve prison terms of 26 and 30 months on two of the other theft by swindle charges, and stayed sentences of 21 months and 27 months on two others. Fischer allowed the sentences to be served concurrently, or all at the same time.
The order also requires that Daniel reimburse the victims $386,212.