Six of eight people, including two Fresno County employees, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony charges that accuses them of stealing from dead people and their families.
After entering their pleas, Noe Jimenez, Ree Bruce, Desiree Amber Robledo, Kirsten Paxton, Terrence Ward, and William Stoutingburg agreed to return to Fresno County Superior Court on June 19 for a status hearing.
Standing next to the defendants were some of Fresno’s top criminal lawyers: Daniel Bacon, who represents, Jimenez, the alleged ringleader; E. Marshall Hodgkins, who represents Ward; Jeff Hammerschmidt, who represents Robledo, and Roger Nuttall, who represents Stoutingburg.
During the brief hearing, Judge Don Penner allowed another defendant, Susan Patricia Nesbitt, to delay her arraignment until April 5 so she could hire a lawyer.
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The final defendant, Marty McClue, will be arraigned Thursday.
The crimes occurred between 2010 and 2013, the state Attorney General’s Office said.
The investigation focuses on the Fresno County Public Administrator’s Office, which moved from the Fresno County Coroner’s jurisdiction to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office. Each year, the Public Administrator’s Office handles millions of dollars in assets of people who die with nobody to oversee their estates.
A criminal complaint lists 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. The crimes occurred between 2010 and 2013, the state Attorney General’s Office said.
Altogether, the transactions netted in excess of $120,000, the complaint said.
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. (Smittcamp took office in January 2015.)
Before their arrests, Jimenez, Nesbitt and Bruce were employees in the Public Administrator’s Office. McClue worked for the Fresno County Public Guardian’s Office. Ward is described in the complaint as a Tulare County employee.
Because the District Attorney’s Office has a conflict, the state Attorney General’s Office is in charge of the investigation that has led the eight defendants to be accused of a variety of crimes, including embezzlement by a public officer, perjury, conspiracy and preparing false evidence.
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.
All of the defendants have posted bail, except for Bruce, who is free on a pre-trial release program under the supervision of the Probation Department, court records say.
All of the defendants list Fresno addresses in court records, except for Robledo who lists a Clovis address. Jimenez and Paxton list the same Fresno address on West Chennault Avenue, court records say.
Jimenez, 49, of Fresno, faces 22 felony counts. He is free on $195,000 bail. Nesbitt, 50, of Fresno, faces 11 felony charges. She is free on $80,000 bail.
Bruce, 61, faces four felony charges; Ward, 54, faces three felony charges; Robledo, 29, and McClue, 54, and Stoutingburg, 29, face two felony charges, and Paxton, 23, faces one felony charge.
Since the thefts were reported, Fresno County has spent $156,000 to pay off estates of the dead people and their relatives whose possessions may have been stolen by Fresno County Public Administrator employees and their friends.
Authorities have confirmed that 52 estates have been settled.