LAKELAND – Some businesses simply don’t want to handle cash – they prefer that customers pay by check, debit card or credit card. There’s a record of the payment, and the added benefit of there being no cash on the premises, which might deter robbers from targeting their shop.
For years, Jack’s Insurance Inc. in Lakeland didn’t accept cash payments from people who wanted to cover their insurance bills. When Cynthia Applewhite and Sherrl Devine took over the business in 2007, they changed that policy and started accepting cash as payment for insurance plans.
There was just one problem, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office now says. The two women, detectives charge, were pocketing that money – to a grand total of more than $422,000 over four years.
On Friday, Feb. 3, Applewhite, 32, of 3404 Groveview Drive in Lakeland, was placed under arrest and booked into the Polk County Jail on one count of scheming to defraud and one count of grand theft over $100,000. She posted bond and was released today.
Devine, 39, of 2421 6th Ave. West in Bradenton, was also arrested on Friday and booked into the Manatee County Jail on a Polk County warrant for the same two charges. Devine will be held there until she gets transported to Polk County.
“Can you believe these two thieves?” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. “Their poor mother/mother-in-law trusted these women to run the family business, and this is how they repay her – by stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars!”
According to the arrest report by Polk County Sheriff’s Office detectives who investigated the case, they were employed at Jack’s Insurance, Inc. at 4710 New Tampa Highway in Lakeland. They began working there in 2004 for the insurance broker that locates and facilitates insurance contracts for customers. It was partly a family-run business.
In June 2007, one of the two active partners in the firm, Maria Applewhite, retired. She turned the business over to her daughter-in-law, Cynthia Applewhite, and to Sherryl Devine, who is Maria Applewhite’s daughter. They had gotten promoted to licensed insurance agents, enabling them to quote, sell, and accept payments for insurance policies. And that was when things began to change at Jack’s Insurance, detectives now claim.
“While Maria was a partner at the company, cash payments were not accepted,” noted Carrie Eleazer, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. “When Maria left, Cynthia and Sherryl began accepting cash payments, telling other employees in the business not to document the cash payments received as ‘cash.’ These and all other fraudulent transactions were done out of sight of the remaining active partner, Christine Mansell.”
Detectives say they were able to document that from July 2007 to October 2010, Cynthia Applewhite and Sherryl Devine accepted cash payments from customers intended for deposit into the Jack’s Insurance business account to pay insurance premiums.
“But the two women instead pocketed the cash,” Eleazer said. “The two women did in fact make the payments from the Jack’s Insurance business account to the cash-paying customers’ insurance providers, so the customers’ premiums were paid. An audit of the business account shows a total loss of $252,600 due to this form of theft.” Detectives said the two women also forged refund checks as a method of stealing money from the business.
“The women issued refund checks to ‘customers’ who were not actually due any money,” Eleazer noted. “The checks were deposited into Cynthia or Sherryl’s personal bank accounts instead. An audit of the business account shows a total loss of $152,800 due to this form of theft.”
The women also paid themselves from the Jack’s Insurance business account as a “commission” or “pay advance,” signing the checks for each other on behalf of the business, the arrest report claims. The business lost $7,500 from this practice, detectives say.
“Additionally, Sherryl Devine paid several of her own bills from the Jack’s Insurance business account, including her mortgage, insurance, auto loan, and car repairs,” Eleazer noted, adding that she used $9,600 altogether for her own personal expenses.
Judd said when his office finally got a tip about this illegal practice, his detectives got right on it.
“That is one of the lowest things people can do – steal from honest hard-working people who trust them,” he said. “They should be made to pay every penny back, with interest!”
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