The state Attorney General’s office has filed a 34-count complaint that charges eight people – four of them Fresno County employees – with thefts from dead people and their families.
The focus of the investigation was the Fresno County Public Administrator’s Office, which was dismantled in 2015 and moved from the Fresno County Coroner’s jurisdiction to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office.
In its complaint, the state listed 31 “overt acts” of thefts from nine estates that included cars, money, cash, china, rare coins and jewelry. They then sold items to pawn businesses. In one case, two of those charged split more than $44,000 in proceeds from a life insurance policy, the complaint said.
Altogether, the transactions netted in excess of $120,000, the complaint said.
Three of four employees in the Public Administrator’s Office were charged in the case. A fourth county employee, who worked for the Fresno County Public Guardian’s Office, also was charged. The crimes occurred between 2010 and 2013, the state Attorney General’s Office said.
Each year, the Public Administrator’s Office handles millions of dollars in assets of people who die with nobody to oversee their estates. The discovery was a significant blow to the Public Administrator’s Office
Arrest warrants were issued Wednesday.
The case first came to light in 2015 when Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp announced that her office’s investigators learned of the thefts and saw potential criminal wrongdoing.
“It is the most disturbing thing that has happened to me since I was sworn in (in January 2015),” Smittcamp said at the time. “It is absolutely unacceptable to me as a citizen, as an elected official and as the district attorney of this county. I am disgusted by this behavior and I will not tolerate it and I will not allow it to continue.”
The alleged ring leader in the thefts was Noe Jimenez, 49, who was charged with 22 felony counts, including embezzlement, perjury and conspiracy. He is in jail on $195,000 bail.
Susan Patricia Nesbitt, 50, was charged with nine counts of embezzlement and conspiracy. She was released from jail Wednesday on $80,000 bail.
Ree Bruce, 61, was charged with four felony counts, including conspiracy and embezzlement. He was not in jail and is wanted on a $35,000 state warrant. All three worked for the Public Administrator’s Office in managing estates.
8 Number of those charged in Public Administrator theft case
Marty McClue, 54, who worked in the Fresno County Public Guardian’s Office, was charged with felony embezzlement and conspiracy. He is wanted on a $20,000 state warrant.
Others charged were: Terrence L. Ward, 54, on five felony counts of embezzlement, receiving stolen property and conspiracy; Desiree Robledo, 29, two felony counts of receiving stolen property and conspiracy; and Kirsten Paxton, 23, for one felony count of receiving stolen property. William E. Stoutingburg, 29, is wanted on two felony counts of conspiracy and embezzlement.
Ward, described in the complaint as a Tulare County employee, was out on $30,000 bail Wednesday night.
Robledo was released on $20,000 bail and Paxton was released in lieu of $10,000 bail. Stoutingburg is being sought on a $15,000 state warrant. All three helped clean up homes of the deceased, the complaint said.
One woman who filed suit against the county reported that she didn’t know what happened to antiques, furniture, jewelry, silverware, china, an antique pool table and a motorcycle that were at her mother’s home after her mother died. She also alleged that a pickup truck was stolen after the Public Administrator’s Office took possession of her mother’s estate.
Another family said they believe their son’s estate was missing a classic car. They also said they weren’t paid for his real estate. Neither family was named in the complaint.
The investigation of the Public Administrator’s Office started shortly after the department was moved to the District Attorney’s Office. It was part of the Fresno County Coroner’s Office for 35 years until the end of 2014 after Coroner David Hadden’s retirement. The coroner’s office was moved into the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
The District Attorney’s Office handed the case off to the state Attorney General because otherwise it would have been investigating its own employees.
Reached at home Wednesday, Hadden said the Public Administrator’s Office was separate from the coroner’s office. Even though the office had been under the coroner’s jurisdiction, the Public Administrator’s Office was housed separately, about a mile from the coroner’s office near Malaga.
They followed rules, Hadden said, including one that required two members of the office going to each call where there was money or jewelry so they could avoid theft accusations.
“What I saw of them, they were good, industrious and committed employees,” Hadden said. “In retrospect, that was a good cover for what they were doing.”
When he retired, Hadden recalls being thanked by one of the public administrator employees who was arrested for allowing him the opportunity to reach his potential.
“That sounds kind of weird now,” Hadden said.
The office also was beset by another theft in 2008, when a coroner’s investigator was convicted of taking items from a man whose death he was investigating.
During a 2013 Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting to dissolve the Fresno County Coroner-Public Administrator’s Office, then-Supervisor Phil Larson cited several incidents of theft. Hadden acknowledged the 2008 case, but said he didn’t recall other more recent cases beyond a second ring theft. Larson did not expand on those comments.
“In my office, the worst thing you could do was steal from the dead,” he said Wednesday.