Las Vegas business owners Steve Schafer and Todd Osmundson were gearing up to give their employees Christmas bonuses in December 2019 when they realized something was amiss.
The co-owners of Earth Resource Group, which offers environmental remediation services out of their 6041 Clark St. office, seemed to have less money in their business bank account than they expected.
“We were really busy, but it just didn’t seem like we were getting further ahead,” Schafer said. “We were like, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ It was really frustrating. It was the first year we weren’t able to do Christmas bonuses for our employees. We are proud to be able to try and do that every year.”
So the two commissioned an investigation of the company’s bookkeeping, and the findings shocked them: Police and prosecutors say the company’s longtime office manager, Patricia Jean Wicks, 48, stole more than $348,000 from the business over the course of about three years.
“We would have done anything for her if she needed something,” Osmundson said. “We trusted her completely.”
District Court records show that Wicks was indicted April 8 by a Clark County grand jury on 40 felony counts of theft and forgery. Her public defender Bryan Cox said Wicks will plead not guilty at her arraignment. His office continues to investigate the allegations.
Grand jury documents indicate that Nicole Arends, a project manager at the company, helped her bosses sniff out the missing money in the early stages of the internal investigation. Arends said she considered Wicks a friend, noting that Wicks “always had plenty of money.”
“Around Christmastime of last year she gave me a couple gift cards to help me out, to give my kids Christmas gifts,” Arends told the grand jury. She said Wicks told her “to pay her back whenever.”
The Lowe’s gift cards were for $200 each, she said. Wicks had “a large stack of them,” Arends told the grand jury.
When the internal investigation started in January 2020, Arends told the grand jury, she was present when an outside bookkeeper hired to help the company asked Wicks for the monthly Lowe’s account statement. Wicks said it hadn’t come in the mail yet.
“The day prior, I had opened the mail, and I had just gotten the new Lowe’s statement,” Arends testified. “I time-stamped it and gave it to Patricia myself, so I knew she had it.”
That night, Arends stayed late to review the books herself. She found multiple Lowe’s gift card purchases using a company card — 13 in one day valued at $200 each, and about $12,000 to $15,000 worth of gift card purchases that December, she said.
Arends also uncovered multiple checks made out to Wicks in what she recognized as Wicks’ handwriting. She compared the check numbers to the company’s accounting system, which showed the same checks being paid to vendors.
On the day Wicks was fired, she told Arends that she had taken some money without permission, the witness told the grand jury.
Osmundson said the checks written directly to Wicks had Schafer’s signature forged on them.
Jessica Banks, a forensic legal auditor with the Clark County district attorney’s office, reviewed the company’s bank account and purchases.
She tallied more than $348,000 in unauthorized expenditures, including $27,025 in checks written directly to Wicks as well as $5,533 in AT&T charges, $17,411 in Enterprise Rent-A-Car charges, $113,086 in Lowe’s charges, $122,640 in debit card charges and $62,879 in ATM withdrawals, she testified.
‘Don’t trust anybody’
Schafer and Osmundson said the thefts unfolded despite the fact that they hired an outside bookkeeper and a certified public accountant to review their financials. Her name was Alisha Hendrix, who they recently learned was arrested by Las Vegas police on suspicion of embezzlement from a local doctor’s office in an unrelated case.
“We are just not sure there are any ethical bookkeepers out there,” Schafer said.
Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney James Sweetin is prosecuting the Wicks case. He described the theft as “very thought-out and methodical.”
“We do have a number of those cases where, many times, businesses are very trusting of their employees,” Sweetin said. “They compensate them well, think of them as friends, and in the end it turns out that trust was misplaced. I think the evidence shows that in the Wicks case.”
Sweetin recommends that business owners hire outside experts to review their books. But at Earth Resource Group, Schafer and Osmundson said that service failed them.
“We trusted multiple people to think we had that oversight and that they’ve got our backs,” Schafer said. “Bottom line is — don’t trust anybody. Just look at the stuff yourself.”
“You have to be somewhat hands on looking at your bank accounts all the time,” Osmundson said. “It will never happen to us again.”