An Ocean Springs woman spent some of her children’s nearly $234,000 inheritance money on trips to casinos, bars and restaurants, but her children pleaded for mercy before a judge decided her sentence this week.
Shannon Werneth was accused of spending some of the money at the Golden Nugget and Hard Rock casinos and PetSmart in Biloxi and spent more at bars and restaurants, such as the Downtown Jazz Bar in Pascagoula and Castaways in Ocean Springs.
“Obviously, this is about misappropriation of almost a quarter of a million dollars,” Assistant District Attorney Bill Barrett said. “I sympathize with the children and family. I can see how they would not want a family member to go prison.”
But, Barrett said, Werneth was liable for the misspent money that a Chancery Court judge had ordered her to place into two trust accounts at Keesler Federal Credit Union, with one account for her daughter and the other for her son to use later on in life.
The order specified that Werneth’s withdrawals on the children’s behalf had to be approved by the court first. She also was to give the court an annual accounting of the children’s funds.
But Werneth defied that order, Barrett said, and her spending increased after the inheritance money was placed into her personal banking account as guardian of the children’s estate.
“It’s a lot of money,” Barrett said. “She did not use all this money for her children. This recommendation is to deter this type of behavior.”
The money had been placed in Werneth’s account after the children’s father’s death in 2013.
A plea for mercy
Werneth’s attorney said a good portion of the money was spent on the two children to provide them clothing and other essentials over the years, such as band equipment, vehicles, food and other items.
Jake Werneth begged the judge to consider a light sentence for his mother that included no order for any restitution.
“I’m speaking on behalf of my sister and myself,” Jake Werneth said in a note Miller read to the judge when Werneth pleaded guilty to two counts of felony embezzlement. “We would like you to know we have not been hurt by any of this.
“We’ve had a great life and have never gone without. She made sure we had everything we wanted and needed. When my Dad got cancer the first time, it was my mother that got us all through it. When he decided to leave and move to Illinois, she was the one that got my sister and I through it.”
When their father’s cancer returned, he said, it was again his mother who helped him and his sister through the loss.
“My sister and I need our mother to continue to be an active part of our lives,” he said.
Her son pointed out that he had just completed his freshman year in college, where he made the president’s lists and played the trombone for the college band.
“I’m on track to major in aerospace engineering,” he said, adding that his sister had just completed her sophomore year in college, earning top recognition as an honors student. He said she’s also an “accomplished musician, music instructor ....and member of the Coastal Flute Choir.”
He said both he and sister had not been hurt by their mother’s actions.
No prison time
Prosecutors recommended Werneth serve five years in prison on two charges of felony embezzlement, but the woman’s children pleaded with Judge Dale Harkey to keep her out of prison.
On Tuesday, Harkey sentenced Werneth to a total of 30 years in prison for two counts of felony embezzlement, but suspended any prison time and ordered her to serve four years under house arrest and pay restitution in the amount of $233,946 plus fines and court costs.
Her attorney, Keith Miller, appealed to the judge to consider a sentence of non-adjudicated probation so Werneth would not have a felony record and could continue to work in her profession as a registered nurse.
The judge sympathized with Werneth’s children, but said their mother needed to be held accountable for wasting their inheritance money.
“The law establishes protocols, checks and balances to make sure that brothers don’t steal from sisters, mothers don’t steal from children and grandparents don’t steal from uncles,” Harkey said. “I’m sure you don’t want to let them (your children) know you were spending the money in bars and casinos ... but that is what led to you being here... This is a tremendous insult to the integrity of the legal system and our Chancery Courts. It’s just heartbreaking to me to have a child put in this position by a choice you made.”