A Riverside County deputy public defender who collected her dead grandmother's Social Security benefits and spent the money on whatever she desired over a period of a dozen years pleaded guilty Monday to felony charges.
Audrey Gail Owens, 60, of Upland could face 10-20 years in federal prison when she's sentenced by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips on June 2.
A week before she was slated to go on trial, Owens pleaded guilty to two counts of theft of government property. She was indicted on five counts of theft last July.
The defendant made her plea directly to Phillips. The U.S. Attorney's Office did not negotiate a deal.
Owens remains free on bond.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the defendant came to the attention of the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration in the summer of 2012, after agents confirmed that SSA retirement insurance benefits had been deposited into a bank account shared by the defendant and her grandmother, Pollie Gayden, who died in May 2000.
The total amount automatically deposited between 2000 and 2012 was $129,795; the account balance at the time of closure -- $3,727, according to court papers.
Prosecutors said the SSA ran a check on Gayden's status when records indicated she had exceeded 100 years of age. Benefits abruptly stopped in September 2012, when the government received a copy of the woman's death certificate.
Owens allegedly told investigators that she believed the money being deposited into the Kansas City bank account was from her father's veterans' benefits, not Social Security.
"I don't want to go to jail," the woman allegedly told social security investigators, according to court documents. "I don't want my career destroyed...I'm happy it's done with... I've had lots of sleepless nights over this"
The deputy public defender said she used the funds to cover health care- related expenses for her father, an Alzheimer's patient, but also acknowledged using the money "for her own needs, such as for rent and utility bills," court papers allege.
Her father died in December 2006.
"She knew at the time that it was wrong to take and spend what she believed constituted (her father's) VA funds after his death; however, she did so anyway," the criminal complaint that preceded the indictment said.
The items for which Owens allegedly wrote a check out of the shared account included a $300 contribution to the Riverside County Employee Campaign, a booster group for the roughly 17,800 people employed in county government.
– City News Service contributed to this report..