A bookkeeper who defrauded a fishing lodge out of over $740,000 to feed her gambling addiction has been handed a two-year conditional sentence by a provincial court judge.
Heidimarie Whittaker, 53, of Surrey, was sentenced Jan. 15 in North Vancouver provincial court after pleading guilty to defrauding Northwest Angling Adventures Ltd., which ran the King Pacific Lodge near Hartley Bay, out of almost three-quarters of a million dollars between 2009 and 2013.
Whittaker had a breakdown and confessed in March 2013, according to information presented in court, after she learned an audit was going to be conducted and her activities would likely be found out.
The former president of the lodge, Michael Uehara, told police Whitaker’s actions are part of what pushed the lodge into bankruptcy.
(The assets were later bought by a different company, West Sport Fishing Ltd. and the fishing lodge is currently operating again.)
At the time, King Pacific Lodge, a wilderness fishing lodge built on a large ocean-going barge, operated from May to September, when it was towed to Princess Royal Island, 20 miles south of the First Nations community of Hartley Bay. The lodge, owned by Northwest Angling Adventures Ltd., catered to anglers and wealthy adventure tourists keen to explore the nearby Great Bear Rainforest, home of the “Spirit Bear” and was one of the largest employers for the Hartley Bay community.
Annual revenues for the lodge ranged from $2.4 million to $5 million, according to statements read in court.
The fishing lodge had a business office in North Vancouver, which Whittaker ran from 2009 to 2013. Previously the lodge had used an accounting firm owned by Whittaker’s father-in-law. When the lodge owners decided they needed someone to do the books in-house, the accounting firm suggested Whittaker, who subsequently “ran their North Vancouver office and performed all tasks, particularly anything to do with money,” according to Judge Bryce Dyer.
Employee stole average of $20K per month
Uehara told police later Whitaker was “wholly trusted by him.”
Starting in November 2009 and continuing until December 2012, Whitaker used several company credit cards to make over 1,000 unauthorized cash advance withdrawals totalling over $637,000. She also wrote 18 cheques to her parents, with whom she lived, totalling over $105,000.
In 38 months, Whittaker stole on average almost $20,000 each month from her employer, according to the judge.
Whitaker then altered company accounts to cover her tracks.
Her scheme “in my view had to have had some considerable sophistication to continue as long as it did without her being detected,” said Dyer.
Records presented in court showed most of the fraudulent cash withdrawals were made at seven casinos around the Lower Mainland.
Gambling addiction started with jackpot win
A psychiatrist’s report indicated Whittaker’s gambling addiction began sometime between 2007 and 2009 when she won a jackpot for $13,000 and “she had a craving to do it again, and she started to go there more frequently.”
She ended up visiting the casinos daily, and although she took care of her children she would regularly be out at the casino from about 9 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m., according to the report.
By 2009, Whittaker had already spent extensive amounts of her own and her family’s money at casinos, “however, she continued gambling, apparently hoping for the big win, which of course never came,” said Dyer.
Woman signed up for casino self-exclusion
After coming clean about what she had done, Whittaker signed up for the self-exclusion program at B.C. casinos and started counselling for her gambling addiction. She also co-operated with the bankruptcy trustee dealing with her former employer’s company.
In handing Whittaker a conditional sentence instead of actual jail, the judge said Whittaker’s gambling addiction was a mitigating factor in her actions, although he noted over $100,000 had also been stolen by her for personal expenses.
The judge sentenced Whittaker to house arrest at her home in Surrey, for two years less a day, where she can continue working from home. She is allowed to leave for five hours a week for errands and exercise and in the event of a medical emergency.
For the final six months of her sentence, Whitaker must obey a curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. and complete 240 hours of community work service.
The judge also issued a restitution order for Whittaker to pay back the over $748,000 that she stole.
She must also provide a sample of her DNA.