Sherry Eckel leaves the Eddy County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon following her guilty plea on embezzlement charges. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
A prominent Roswell community member has pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge and been given a suspended sentence of nine years in a criminal case involving circumstances that destroyed longtime friendships and also gave rise to a related civil lawsuit in which her former employer said she stole more than $300,000 from him.
Sherry C. Eckel, 65, pleaded guilty Wednesday in a courtroom in Carlsbad to a second-degree felony, embezzlement over $20,000, in an agreement that involved the dismissal of another count, unlawful obtaining or attempt to obtain dangerous drugs, a fourth-degree felony.
The charge that was dropped involved the allegation that Eckel fraudulently obtained Botox, Juvaderm or similar drugs. The civil lawsuit filed by her former employer, oral surgeon Dr. Ben Smith, alleged Eckel had done so for the purpose of administering the drugs to others.
”What is totally lacking here is any explanation of why you have done this,” said Judge Lisa B. Riley with the Fifth Judicial District Court in Eddy County. “Usually what I see are people who have come from difficult circumstances, not someone who has everything going for her.”
All four Fifth Judicial District Court judges in Chaves County either removed themselves from considering the case or were asked to step aside, given their familiarity with Eckel and her husband. Jesse Eckel is a vice president at J.P. Stone Community Bank in Roswell and is a governor-appointed regent of the New Mexico Military Institute.
Riley made her statement after reading the defense team’s sentencing memorandum and accompanying letters of references, which the judge said reminded her of “an award [auth] nomination.”
She then rejected the suggestion of defense attorney B.J. Crow for a conditional discharge and instead ruled that the nine-year sentence would be suspended and that Eckel will serve three years on supervised probation followed by two years of parole. Eckel also was ordered to pay $180 in various fees.
Restitution was waived because Eckel and her husband previously had reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount to reimburse some of the money to Smith.
Assistant District Attorney Kristen Cartwright said that she could not comment on why the decision was made to drop the fourth-degree felony involving the obtaining of drugs, as that decision involved a prior District Attorney staff member. Cartwright also said she considers the case done.
”As far as I am concerned the case is over,” said Cartwright. The sentence “was exactly as we recommended …”
Eckel apologized for her actions in her statement to the court but did not give any reasons for behavior that Riley characterized as a pattern of conduct.
”This was not a mistake. This was not a one-time action,” Riley said. “It charges that this happened from March 1, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2015. That is a course of conduct over a period of time.”
Eckel had been an office manager for the local dental practice for Dr. Smith for more than 25 years, receiving what Smith has said was a six-figure annual income.
Smith, who referred several times to the betrayal of trust he, his staff and family experienced, said that he had discovered the embezzlement when he sold his local practice in 2013 and reviewed financial records as part of that process.
According to the civil lawsuit Smith filed against both Eckel and her husband, Smith said that she had taken at least $300,000 from his busness by taking cash payments for herself rather than depositing them in the business account. He also claimed that Eckel wrote checks of about $83,000 to her two children using the dental practice business account. Smith alleged in that lawsuit that the husband would be aware of what was occurring because the Eckels held a joint bank account and his financial obligations to his children would have been decreasing.
Addressing the judge, Dr. Smith said, “In her capacity, she had my complete trust and that of my practice staff. She also was the trustee of my grandfather’s will. She had total access to all my accounts and she looted them of more than $1 million. The restitution that I have received is a fraction of that. She never said that she was sorry and she never showed remorse.”
Smith described himself as an empathetic and compassionate person.
”I am sorry that it has come to this point,” he said, “But I think anyone who violates our trust and does so against the statutes of this case deserves to be punished.”
Following the hearing, Smith said that he was satisfied with the outcome.
”She is a convicted felon and she will have to live with that for the rest of her life,” he said.
Eckel told the judge that Dr. Smith had told her stay away from him and his family, which is why she never apologized directly to him.
Crow, her lawyer, described his client as part of a loving family who had many supportive friends. He said that she has never before been in trouble with the law and that she was known in her community for her volunteer efforts with NMMI, the Rotary and other organizations.
The Eckels and their lawyer chose not to provide additional comments following the hearing.
”I have no doubt that you will be successful on probation,” said Riley after sentencing Eckel. “I do not expect to see you back here.”
Another civil lawsuit was recently filed against Eckel that questions her handling of financial matters.
Tara O’Connell of Tulsa, Oklahoma, filed suit in August alleging that Eckel has made questionable decisions regarding a trust that O’Connell’s grandmother, Eugenie M. Hanagan, established. Eckel was named primary trustee for the trust, which has since been dissolved. Included among the allegations in the pending suit are the statement that Eckel paid a credit card bill for her son with assets from the trust.
”That I do know,” said lawyer Angelo Artuso of Albuquerque, who represents O’Connell. “But I haven’t spoken to (Eckel) about it. There may be a reason why she would have been able to do that. We haven’t proven anything yet.”
He said that the lawsuit is in the discovery stage and that he and Eckel’s lawyers have been trying to resolve the issues.
”We are trying to determine what assets are in the trust and hopefully that will be the end of it,” he said. “If it turns out there is stuff missing or the questions aren’t being answered, then the lawsuit will continue.”
That lawsuit also has been assigned to Judge Riley following the recusal or requests by lawyers for five other judges to step aside. No upcoming hearing has been scheduled in that matter.
Staff writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, firstname.lastname@example.org.