Last week in Wilkes Superior Court, Shelley Lovette Gamble of Millers Creek was tried for and convicted of embezzling something approaching half a million dollars from a nonprofit organization.
For 18 years, Gamble was the executive director of Brushy Mountain Group Homes. These are three homes in Wilkes that allow intellectually and mentally disabled people to have a safe, stable place to live.
She was fired by the organization’s board of directors in 2016 after it became apparent that she had been illegally taking money.
District Attorney Tom Horner was contacted by the group’s attorney, John Willardson. Horner did his duty and called the State Bureau of Investigation about the matter.
SBI Special Agent Marie Smith, a specialist in such crimes, did a thorough investigation and charged Gamble with two counts of embezzling $100,000 or more and six counts of embezzling lesser amounts.
Assistant district attorneys Matthew Leach and Lee Bollinger presented the evidence, disputed to a degree by Gamble’s attorney, Davy Foster.
Jurors listened to the testimony, the arguments of the attorneys and instructions of Judge Michael Duncan, Wilkes County’s resident Superior Court judge.
It was a shock to no one that the jury didn’t deliberate too long before finding Gamble guilty on all counts. There was a paper trail showing in black and white what Gamble had stolen and when.
Both the state and the defense agreed that two aggravating factors were present in the evidence. One was that Gamble, as executive director of Brushy Mountain, had abused a position of trust and confidence and the other was that something of great value—a large amount of money—had been stolen.
This put Gamble’s sentence in the aggravated range, which was particularly significant on the two counts of embezzling $100,000 or more. This amount made it a “Class C” felony requiring an active prison term.
Had Duncan been so inclined, he could have ordered all the sentences to be served consecutively. This would have been the equivalent of life imprisonment, given the fact that Gamble is 55 years old. That would have been far too harsh.
But here’s where the sentencing hearing took a bit of a shocking turn.
Duncan, instead, gave Gamble a prison sentence of seven years and six months to 10 years and two months on one of the major felonies. The lower end must be served without parole. He ran the other major felony sentence concurrent and put her on probation for the other six felonies.
Duncan also lowered the amount of restitution owed by Gamble from more than $400,000 to $25,000.
Truth be told, Gamble will come out of prison in seven years penniless and with few options for paying back any of the money. Still, it looked pretty weak for her to only get seven years in prison and a massive reduction in restitution.
Had Duncan activated a prison term on one of the lesser felonies and structured the sentence so that Gamble had to serve 10 or 15 years without parole, justice would have been done. I really can’t understand the judge’s rationale for imposing a relatively light sentence in such a serious case.
Brushy Mountain Group Homes and its truly vulnerable clients were victimized by Gamble. This is one of the worst cases of embezzlement from a nonprofit organization I’ve ever heard of in this area. Board members at the time have to shoulder some responsibility for allowing Gamble free rein and failing to provide appropriate financial oversight. They let down on their duties and Gamble was able to steal with impunity.