Newton County News Editor
(Note: A longer version of this article appears in this week's Newton County News.)
A federal judge on Thursday, Aug. 18, sentenced a former Seneca banker to 8 months in prison for a scheme in which she stole nearly $38,000 using her customers' identities and from the charity her family is widely known for supporting.
Michelle D. Vanderpool, 37, pleaded guilty in February to one count of felony bank theft/embezzlement in connection with a $5,078 loan she obtained using the name and financial information of one her customers at People's Bank of Seneca in 2013.
During Thursday's hearing, held in the U.S. District Courthouse in Springfield, it was revealed publicly for the first time that Vanderpool also stole between $6,000 and $7,000 from the Seneca Food Pantry, where she was the nonprofit's treasurer.
In June 2013, People's Bank officials contacted federal investigators, including the FBI and the Office of Inspector General for the Federal Insurance Deposit Corp., advising that they had discovered Vanderpool was opening and approving loans in the names of bank clients without their knowledge or approval, court records show.
Once the loans were opened, Vanderpool transferred the money into her personal accounts, court records show.
Vanderpool was the assistant vice president and loan officer at People's Bank, a position she had been promoted to just six months prior.
The scheme was discovered after a bank customer approached bank officials with a document that showed a loan in her named had been paid in full, court records show.
Investigators determined that Vanderpool processed the loan documents in the customer's name and forged her signature.
That loan wasn't the only one Vanderpool opened, investigators found. As of Dec. 15, 2015, they found multiple loans opened by her in the same manner.
The money has since been repaid, court records show.
The government sought a sentence of 6 months in prison, followed by six months of house arrest and 5 years of supervised probation.
But Vanderpool's attorney, Erica Mynarich, argued that Vanderpool's true punishment occurs every day. Mynarich asked for a sentence that didn't include any prison time.
“She's going to pay forever, because she's going to live in little Seneca, Mo., the rest of her life,” Mynarich said. “There is an inherent penalty with the shame and embarrassment she brought on herself and her family.”
Once the thefts were discovered, Vanderpool was removed from the food pantry's board of directors. But that hasn't stopped her from fully participating in the annual Farmers Feeding Neighbors Hay Auction, a food pantry fundraiser put on each year by her family and other community members.
Vanderpool is listed as the contact for the event on the group's Facebook page and is listed as a contact and sponsor of the event — under her maiden name — on flyers for the 10th annual auction, set for Sept. 10.
For her part, Vanderpool told the court that she took the money to give her and her then-husband, Nick Vanderpool, some “room to breathe” as their farming operation outside Seneca struggled to stay afloat.
Vanderpool cashed out a 401k retirement account and borrowed money from her father, auctioneer Jim Graham, to repay what she stole.
U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark rejected the defense's argument, pointing out that in exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors didn't file an aggravated identity theft charge, which if proven has a mandatory two-year sentence that must be served in addition to any other prison time.
Vanderpool was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals at the conclusion of the hearing. When her prison sentence is complete, she will serve three years of supervised probation.