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 Amanda Zurwell Guilty of Forgery

July 22, 2009 - A Henry County jury found former Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation business manager Amanda Zurwell guilty of two counts of forgery last Thursday, while acquitting her of four counts of theft.

After hearing a little more than a day's worth of testimony from half a dozen witnesses, the six-woman, six-man jury deliberated a little more than three hours before returning its split verdict. Zurwell, who sat at the defense table flanked by her two attorneys, showed little emotion as Henry County Superior Court 1 Judge Michael Peyton read the jury's ruling on each of the six counts.

The jury concluded the 34-year-old Zurwell, a Hancock County resident who worked at CAB from September 2006 through mid-January of 2007, had forged two checks payable to herself after taking over CAB's payroll duties in December 2006. Zurwell had cashed the first check, which was for $2,297.19 and dated Dec. 8, 2006, while the second one, dated Jan. 5, 2007, for $2,61.50, had been discovered and voided before being cashed.

The four theft charges Zurwell faced had been based on salary overpayments she had inexplicably received her last few weeks of employment. While Zurwell's attorneys presented no evidence to dispute the overpayments, the jury apparently was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the former business manager was responsible for them.

Most of the first day of Zurwell's trial, Tuesday, June 14, was devoted to voir dire, the process by which attorneys select jurors. Unlike a failed effort from the month before that resulted in a mistrial, this time, the required jury of 12 and one alternate was chosen.

Deputy Prosecutor Joe Bergacs and Zurwell's attorney, Stephanie Doran of Kokomo, gave opening statements to the jury Tuesday afternoon. The court recessed after that, with the presentation of evidence set to begin the next morning.

Bergacs called five witnesses on Wednesday, including three former CAB employees: Angela Moss, former payroll and benefits clerk; Judy Barnes, former treasurer; and David McGuire, former superintendent. The last two witnesses that day were Jena Schmidt, CAB's current human resource specialist and administrative assistant to the superintendent, and Robin White, an auditor with the State Board of Accounts.

By about 10 a.m. Thursday, Bergacs had wrapped up his case against Zurwell. The only witness to testify for the state that morning had been Detective Sgt. Elmer New of the Henry County Sheriff's Department. New, a 23-year HCSD veteran who investigated this matter. With the jury out of the courtroom during a brief break, Doran made a motion for a judgment on the evidence,

arguing that there had been "a complete failure of proof" in the state's case against her client. Peyton disagreed, however, and denied the request, saying he believed there was sufficient evidence to withstand Doran's motion. When the jury returned to the courtroom, Zurwell's attorneys rested without presenting any evidence at all. The fact that Zurwell opted to exercise her consitutional right not to take the stand and testify on her own behalf, however, had not kept the jury from hearing her answer questions about this case.

During New's testimony, a recording of a the detective's nearly 50-minute interview with the defendant, conducted March 27, 2007, at Zurwell's home, was played for the jury. Jurors were also provided with a transcript of the recording to follow along with the audio, which was played back for them on a laptop computer that sat on a lectern in front of the jury box.

The week before the trial began, Peyton had denied a request from Zurwell's attorneys to exclude or redact portions of New's interview with their client. Before the recording was played for the jury last Thursday, Cox asked Peyton to reconsider his earlier ruling.

Peyton said he stood by his July 9 order. He did, however, note a continuing objection from Zurwell's attorneys, and instructed jurors not to consider any of New's comments as evidence, but simply as statements designed to elicit information from Zurwell. While Zurwell admitted no wrongdoing during the interview, there was a marked change in her vocal tone and demeanor when New asked her about the two forged. Under questioning that was becoming more intense, she was unable to explain what the checks were for or provide any details about them.

Zurwell told New she had made a lot of errors when she took over payroll following Moss' departure in early December 2006. This was somewhat corroborated by the testimony of Barnes, Schmidt and McGuire, who all recalled that a representative from Komputrol, the company that provides CAB's pay and budgeting software, had to be called in to show Zurwell how to do the payroll.

New also asked Zurwell to explain why her gross pay had jumped from $2,742.99 to $3,000 a pay period after she took over payroll. Again, she seemed to be at a loss for an answer.

"I don't know that part, except that I didn't know how to do payroll," Zurwell was heard saying on the interview recording. "... I was very incompetent at it."

"I know what you did, and you know what you did," New said to Zurwell toward the end of the interview. "... What happened in your life that you needed that money that bad?"

"I don't know," Zurwell replied.

Despite New's encouragement that she explain what happened, Zurwell said she need time to process everything. Saying she didn't have "anything to offer" at this time, she asked for New's contact information and the interview ended.

Attorneys began their closing arguments at about 11:10 a.m., and were finished just before 12:30, at which time jurors retired to the jury room to deliberate. It was about 3:50 p.m. when they returned with their verdict.

Peyton scheduled Zurwell's sentencing hearing for Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 1:30 p.m. As Class C felonies, the two forgery charges were the most serious of the six filed against Zurwell, each carrying a sentence of two to eight years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

When Peyton sentences Zurwell, he will have the option of ordering that her sentences on the two forgery convictions either run consecutive to each other, or run concurrently. Another sentencing option that permits complete suspension of a sentence's term of imprisonment may not be available, however, due to an earlier conviction.

In April 2008, Zurwell pleaded guilty to one count of theft in a Brown County court with respect to a $3,132 check stolen from her former employer, Brown County School Corporation, in July 2006. She received 180 days of home detention, one year of probation and 80 hours of community service for that offense.

Because the Brown County theft was a felony, state statute could prevent Peyton from suspending the full term of any imprisonment that ends up being part of Zurwell's sentence. Instead, he may only be allowed to suspend those portions of the sentences that are in excess of the two-year minimum sentences.

 

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