While the following really happened, I have changed the name of both the town and the person involved to protect the innocent. Or the guilty.
For nearly a decade, I worked in the temporary staffing industry handling the administrative duties needed to keep a company operating, including dealing with employees who stole from the company. One of those employees, Little Joe, taught me about the swift nature of small town justice.
In most companies, hourly employees clock in and out via some automated system or with a person known as a timekeeper. At our largest clients where we had dozens or even hundreds of employees, we would use the same type system. But at smaller locations, the employees would complete a manual timecard, have the supervisor at the company sign the timecard, and then submit it to us for payroll. We would create a paycheck for the employee and a bill for the client at the same time.
Some enterprising employees would attempt to submit more hours than they worked or even submit timecards when they didn’t show up for work by forging the supervisor’s signature. When the client received the bill, they would call us and inform us of the billing error and the soon to be ex-employee was busted.
My job included confronting the employee with the evidence of theft and attempting to recover our lost money. Most of the time, people would figure out a way to pay us back to avoid criminal charges.
For the few who could not – or would not – pay us back, we would attempt to press charges. In most states, the crime is “Obtaining Property Under False Pretenses.” The law is black and white that property includes money and false pretenses would include filling out a false time card. Unfortunately, while the law is clear, getting cases all the way into a courtroom was often very challenging.
One employee bilked us of several thousand dollars of pay before the client figured out that the employee was not showing up for work. Unfortunately, the crime occurred in a major city and getting the paperwork through the police department was impossible. The detective assigned to the case confessed to being so overworked that he did not even look at cases where someone lost less than $25,000, so a case involving only “several” thousand was too small for him to investigate. The district attorney’s office would not look at a case that the detective had not reviewed. We had every piece of evidence needed for a conviction, but the case never got close to a courtroom so that we could present the evidence.
Small towns are different. Police departments appreciated how we organized their entire case for them, the courts expedited them through, and justice was swift. Sometimes, surprisingly swift as in the case of Little Joe.
When our story starts I only knew him as Joe Burris (not his real name), an employee fired by our client five weeks earlier, though they never bothered to tell us. Joe kept submitting timecards with his supervisor’s signature forged.
Once the theft was detected, I tried contacting Mr. Burris through the phone number we had, but people answering the phone claimed not to know who he was or where he was, although it was the same phone number we had called to get him the job in the first place. I even sent a registered letter begging him to contact me so I could avoid calling in the police. Our goal was to collect our money, not put a man in jail.
Nothing worked, so I found myself walking through the front doors of the Stewartville (not the town’s real name) Police Department, a squat cinder block building near the two-block-long downtown.
The scuffed tile floor of the lobby held a dozen or so well-worn chairs. A closed and locked door led further back in the building. A small receptionist window was the only other portal. Through the window, I spied a young man dressed in a crisp police officer’s uniform. His orderly metal desk held a phone, a couple of baskets of forms, a notepad and a pen. He greeted me and asked how he could help.
“We have an ex-employee who has been stealing money from our company,” I said.
“So you know who it was?”
“Yes, sir. I have a name and address.”
The officer picked up his pen and asked, “His name?”
The young man looked up. “Little Joe?”
“Do you mean Little Joe?”
I had never heard the nickname, never spoken to Mr. Burris, and never met him. I didn’t know if he was really little, or if he was huge and the nickname was a joke, or if he was a fan of Bonanza. But this young officer not only knew our former employee, he knew him well enough to use a nickname. Don’t let my experience in these things get ahead of you, but the fact that the officer knew the suspect by a nickname did not feel particularly promising. Just call it a professional hunch.
“Uh, I am not sure. I don’t know him by any nickname.” I gave him the address.
“Yep, that’s Little Joe. Only Joe Burris around these parts. Did he break in? Steal money from a cash drawer?”
“No, sir. He submitted time cards for work he didn’t do and cashed the paychecks.
“That’s a crime?”
Don’t be hard on him. I received the same reply from lots of people and was very accustomed to explaining why it is a crime. After a few minutes of my patient explanation, the officer agreed it was a crime, but he also felt the case was too big for him to handle. He opened the door and invited me in to meet a sergeant who joined us in the cramped reception area. The fact that the sergeant was much larger than either of us made the room that much more cramped.
I start my story again. “We have an employee who has been stealing money from us.”
“Ok, and you know who it is.”
“Yes, sir. Joe Burris.”
The sergeant shook his head. “Little Joe?”
I could only sigh since Little Joe was a legend in Stewartville. At least, in its police department.
“Apparently, yes.” I continue through my story. Fortunately, the sergeant did know what Obtaining Property Under False Pretenses was, but I had to explain how our circumstances met that law. Once he agreed, the sergeant suggested I speak to the detective.
For those that missed it, he said “the” not “a” detective.
I am shepherded out of the reception room into a break room where a still larger man wearing a white, short-sleeve button-up shirt is sipping coffee at a table covered in files. I am guessing the longer you work in the Stewartville Police Department, the larger you become. The detective invites me to sit and explain what happened.
“We have an employee who has been stealing money from us. You might know him. Joe Burris?”
“Sure. Little Joe.”
I explained how Little Joe had been forging timecards and cashing paychecks and the detective replied, “Obtaining Property Under False Pretenses,” proving why he was the detective.
When I finished the story, the detective suggested we go back to the Chief’s office and inform him of Little Joe’s latest antics. We curved through the building until we came to an unoccupied secretarial desk, lights off and drawers closed. The detective knocked on a closed door just behind the desk and received a hearty “Come in.”
A very tall, fit man in his 50’s was leaning back in an office chair, scuffed cowboy boots propped on the desk in front of him. The boots complimented his jeans and flannel shirt. The badge and pistol on his belt identified him as the chief.
Across the room, an elderly gentleman sat on a well-worn leather couch telling a quite risque fishing story. Don’t ask. The chief let the gentleman finish his story, roared in approval, and turned his attention to me.
Back in the spotlight, I start my story again. “We have an employee who has been stealing money from us. Joe Burris . . .”
“Little Joe actually had a job?” the chief asked.
“For a week. Then he kept turning in timecards,” I replied and both men laughed.
“How much did he get you for?”
The chief looked at the detective and sergeant who had followed me. “Do we have Little Joe back there today?”
The two men looked at each other and shrugged.
“Well, go check.”
The chief invited me to sit on the couch with his other guest and led me through my story. He would interrupt and ask pointed questions, then encourage me to continue. He examined my copies of timecards and paychecks. By the time the sergeant had returned with the news that Little Joe was not a current guest of the town jail, the Chief had decided an arrest was in order.
Sadly, the chief’s secretary was not working that day. Without Donna’s presence, the paperwork task consumed the chief, the detective, and the sergeant as they hunted for the proper forms and debated how to organize everything. They weren’t worried about any future case, but they were quite worried that Donna would be displeased when she returned the next day.
While these antics played out, I sat on the couch with the fishing buddy of the Chief. We chatted about weather, sports and other topics that strangers discuss. Eventually, he brought the conversation back to the reason for my visit. “Sad that Little Joe stole that money from your company. What do you think should happen to him?”
“Well, here in this state, each offense has a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail. He submitted five fake time cards, so that should count as five offenses. So he should get 150 days.” No judge anywhere had ever given a maximum sentence in one of my cases. The common sentence? Community service and restitution. A nonviolent crime involving small dollars where the victim is a corporation doesn’t invite harsh sentencing. But like any lawyer will tell you, you argue for the maximum and take whatever you can get. And so I finished, “And be ordered to make restitution.”
The man busted up laughing. “Son, Little Joe ain’t ever going to pay you back. He don’t have no money and never has. All that money went to cheap wine, beer and maybe some hookers, but it’s long gone.”
The chief returned and announced that the paperwork had been completed. Or, at least, he thought it was in good enough shape, but Donna would make sure it was all proper when she returned tomorrow. He had also instructed his officers to pick up Little Joe.
The fishing stories resumed and I extricated myself from the office.
The next day, I called Donna just to make sure the paperwork was sufficient. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “Everything was in order and they picked up Little Joe.”
Small town efficiency. I love it. “Excellent news. So when will the court date happen?”
“Honey, there won’t be no court date.”
Fuming, I replied, “Why not? You said the paperwork was all good.”
“I know, honey, it’s all great. Little Joe got 150 days.”
“But, how? When did all of that happen?”
“The judge said you asked for 150 days so you got it.”
“How did the judge know what I wanted?”
“Why, honey, you told him sitting right here on the couch.”
And so I learned that court in Stewartville is held on the couch in the chief of police’s office.
I hung up the phone, stunned. And I made a vow. I was never, ever going to speed if I returned to Stewartville.