(October 10) Judith Oakes’ theft of Rialto Unified School District lunch money was so substantial, according to investigators, that once she had begun she could not stop because to do so would have given indication of her past thefts.
More than two months after her arrest by Rialto Police, Oakes was charged by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office on October 8 with eight counts of embezzlement by a public or private officer and eight counts of a public officer crime.
Officials believe an audit has confirmed that Oakes, who was an accountant for the district overseeing the school lunch program for nearly 14 years, stole more than $1.8 million since 2005.
According to investigator Jeff Stewart, who was hired by the district to look into the thefts, it is likely that Oakes stole more than $3.1 million since 1999. On top of the $1.8 million in cash Oakes is now documented as having taken in the past eight years, another $1.3 million is unaccounted for in the years between 1999, the year Oakes is believed to have begun her depredations, and 2005. The examination of the disappearance of district money prior to 2005 was less rigorous because those crimes fall outside the statute of limitations.
Oakes was married to Jack Oakes, an educator who eventually rose to the position of school principal in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. In the mid-1990s, Judith Oakes was working as an accountant at the Bank of Redlands, which is now known as Community Bank.
In 1997, she went to work in the Rialto Unified School District as an accountant. Eventually, she was given virtually unfettered oversight of the cash receipts from the district’s school lunch program. Not only did she oversee the crew that had physical custody of the money, she was given ultimate accounting authority over the funds.
Beginning in 1999, Oakes began pilfering roughly $4,000 a week from the batches of bills collected and processed by the district’s money-counting machines prior to bank deposit. Having begun the thefts, it seems Oakes was obliged to continue stealing approximately the same amount of money every week – an average of between $4,100 and $4,300 weekly – so that the pattern of thefts would remain undetected.
According to Stewart, sometime after she was put in charge of the staff counting and bundling the lunch money and then depositing it into a school district account and after she had begun her thefts, Oakes was entrusted with security arrangements in the office where the money was counted, as well as the loss control procedure devised for the money counting function. “The [district nutrition] department has a money-counting machine that counts bills, and informs workers when there’s enough to ‘strap’ into batches,” Stewart said. “Ms. Oakes was involved with the installation of the camera system and was aware of what areas in the room were visible to it,” according to Stewart.
Oakes engaged in two levels of sleight-of-hand in first secreting the money she took out of the money counting room and then obfuscating the books that tallied the lunch receipts district-wide.
In the first instance, according to Stewart, “Oakes reportedly would bind the bills up at the back counter of the room, rather than on the table next to the computer, where she couldn’t be seen on camera. Ms. Oakes would then quite frequently take a strap or two of twenty-dollar bills or other denominations and stuff them down her top after checking to make sure the person at the computer was not looking.”
Oakes, who had an overview all of the money flowing in from all of the district’s schools, at which a total of 26,408 students are now enrolled, would then provide falsified deposit slips after the money was bundled and ready for deposit. Oakes overcame the scrutiny of the district staff member responsible for reconciling the bank statements with the district’s deposits by falsifying a spreadsheet which she substituted for ledgers containing entries related to the checks and cash collected from each school.
On occasion, it appears, some staff members noted inconsistencies and irregularities with regard to the total amount of money counted and the amount deposited, but Oakes was able to use her position and authority to override any questions and staff members did not, at least until relatively late, make an effort to report those irregularities out of fear of getting on Oakes’ bad side.
The roughly $210,000 Oakes was stealing from the district yearly augmented an already very comfortable $190,000 yearly household income she and her husband pulled down. Jack Oakes, who had ascended to the position of principal at Ramona-Alessandro Elementary School, made $119,771 during the 2009-2010 school year. Judith was making over $70,000 at that time.
In April 2010, Jack Oakes was severely injured in an off-roading accident in the desert and died of a trauma-induced heart attack.
After her husband’s death, Judith Oakes continued the thefts from the district she had previously been engaged in for over a decade. By the end of 2011, it is believed that she had begun a relationship with Harold Cebrun, who had been superintendent in the Compton and Lynwood school districts prior to being hired as superintendent with the Rialto district in March 2009.
In May, discrepancies with regard to the receipt and depositing of district lunch money was suspected. Video cameras showing perspectives from different angles than those Oakes had previously established were installed in the money counting room unbeknownst to Oakes and Cebrun. She was caught on video stuffing money into her brazier on at least two occasions.
When she was arrested on August 7, Oakes had two packets of $2,000 in $20 bills in her possession. More packets were found at her San Bernardino home later when it was searched pursuant to a warrant. Oakes made incriminating statements to police officers, characterized as a confession. She immediately posted $50,000 bond and was released. She resigned her post on August 8. While the Superior Court’s on-line record shows that a case – number 1308340790 – had been opened against Oakes involving a single charge of PC 459 filed against her on August 12 and that a $50,000 bond had been deposited in conjunction with case 1308340790, the action notation for the following day, August 13, reports that the district attorney was notified but that no case was filed, a seeming contradiction to the previous reference of a PC 459 charge. PC 459 refers to burglary.
That confusion was rendered moot this week, with the 16 charges filed against her. Her bail was raised to $1.8 million, the amount of money she is alleged to have stolen. She was immediately whisked into custody at her arraignment in Fontana Superior Court on October 9 and she remains at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.