Case of theft at tax commission office still open

Whatever happened to?

A year after he took office, Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick had a rude awakening: Someone filched thousands in cash tax payments from a vault left open over the 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Discovering the crime the following Tuesday, Kendrick took quick action to keep it from happening again and suspended a longtime employee who left the vault open.

But, 18 months later, despite investigators administering "many" polygraph exams, the case, being handled by "multiple investigators and supervisors" at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, remains open and unsolved.

"Some cases are never solved," said Scott Peebles, a captain with the sheriff's criminal investigations division. "Lack of evidence is the obvious reason."

Peebles was assigned to respond to a set of questions about the case after the department wouldn't release any investigative reports from the case.

Authorities in Augusta question the attention continually paid by media to the case. Kendrick and Marshal Steve Smith, responsible for building security, both cited the lack of attention paid to a recent Sandy Springs tag office burglary by Atlanta-area media.

There, thieves entered the building at a loading dock and forced open doors, lock boxes and safes to escape with more than $53,000 in cash and checks, according to police.

"It has not been lost upon me and others, who say this particular thing got more attention than others ever did," Kendrick said.

In Augusta, police regard theories of how the tax office burglary occurred as "only speculation," and "will not float theories," Peebles said.

Facts that have been reported in The Augusta Chronicle include:

  •  Tax office customer service manager Kim R. J. Wilkins, an employee since 1979, admitted to leaving the first-floor office vault unsecured when she left work late Friday.
  •  A janitor, Charles Murray, saw the open vault door and informed a part-time marshal on duty, George Robinson, prior to the money - $25,308 in cash, plus checks for an unspecified amount - being reported missing.

According to a 2011 employee roster, Wilkins and Murray remain on the city payroll, while Robinson, who began with the city in 2002, does not.

At the time of the burglary, Sheriff's Lt. Tony Walden said a thief had gained access to the open vault by smashing a tax office window with a cinder block. Inside, Kendrick said the thief had pried open several safes in the open vault to gain access to the cash and checks. Peebles said the item used to open the safes was unknown and not recovered, and that all fingerprints found at the scene matched employee prints. Smith noted that the thief's choice of window - opening to a break room, and then obscured from surveillance - appeared to be either a crook's lucky break or something else.

For Kendrick, who offered to take a polygraph exam but was declined, the crime story ends there, with the investigation turned over to local law enforcement. According to Peebles, no other agency has worked with the department on the case.

The tax office has taken numerous steps to ensure tax dollars won't again so easily vanish, Kendrick said. A policy is now in place that triggers a bank deposit as soon as cash levels reach a certain point. Various security systems are operational and armed, and the vault door is kept closed, he said.

There had actually already been an alarm on the vault, but before Kendrick's 2008 election, service to the alarm had been cut off, Peebles said.

Kendrick, who lost a 2006 bid for mayor to Deke Copenhaver before he was elected in a runoff with Tommy Boyles to become Augusta's first black tax commissioner, said he takes complete responsibility for the burglary.

"It was our failure that gave somebody an opportunity to do that," Kendrick said.

Although the events seem fresh to those involved, the heist is only the latest to befall the tax commissioner's office. Under former Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul's watch, tag clerk Stephanie Lynn Womack was prosecuted in 2001 for embezzling more than $121,000 over an 11-year career at the department's Lumpkin Road tag office.

Prosecutors said Womack developed a scheme to falsify computer tax records to make it appear numerous residents were exempt from paying taxes, then pocketed the cash payments they made. She used the money to pay for trips and gifts for family and friends.

Womack, now 44, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years for racketeering, violating income tax laws, making false statements in a government matter and numerous counts of theft by taking.

According to the Georgia Department of Pardons and Paroles, she was paroled from Metro State Women's Prison in March 2008 and lives in Kingsland, Ga.

After her conviction, a Richmond County grand jury offered a scathing review of operations at the tax commissioner's office, noting that internal audits were never performed, no written rules or policies for handling money were in place and that single employees often were entrusted with exclusive access to cash, records and receipts, among other things.

When he took office seven years later, Kendrick said he realized that many of the weaknesses had still not been addressed, and set about making improvements.

But limited by funds and the assumption that the main tax commission office in the Augusta Richmond County Municipal Building where all visitors are greeted by marshals and metal detectors at the door, somehow wasn't as much of a target, Kendrick put off upgrades at the main office until last, he said.

"That was not one that hit the priority" level, Kendrick said. "Had we done our portion, none of this would have happened."

Richmond County vault robbed of $25,000
Security knew tax commissioner vault was open
About the series

Have you ever wanted to know what became of a local celebrity or a hot issue that once dominated the news in the area?

The Augusta Chronicle provides answers to readers' requests in its regular series, "Whatever happened to..." Today, we look at the theft of more than $25,000 from an open vault at the tax commissioner's office in January 2010.
Requests can be emailed to mike.wynn@augustachronicle.com or mailed to The Augusta Chronicle, Attn: Mike Wynn, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA, 30903-1928, Attn: Mike Wynn, or placed in the online comment section.

Timeline of events surrounding theft at tax commission office:

Jan. 15, 2010: Employees work late at the Tax Commissioner's office. Customer Service Manager Kim Wilkins admits leaving the vault door open when she was the last to leave. Maintenance man Charles Murray informs Marshal George Robinson that a door is open in the tax office.

Jan. 19, 2010: More than $25,000 in cash and an undisclosed amount in checks are discovered missing from the vault that was left open a few days earlier. A window on the side of the building is found shattered by a cinder block.

Jan. 20, 2010: Authorities acknowledge that a maintenance worker had tipped off the marshal in charge of building security that a door was open at the tax office. Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick suspends Customer Service Manager Wilkins for a week for forgetting protocol and leaving the vault open.

Jan. 26, 2010: Officials reveal that new 24-hour manned security at Augusta's Municipal Building is in place at a cost of $1,200 per week. Several employees have been given polygraph exams, including Marshal George Robinson who took two, authorities say.

March 2, 2010: The Augusta Commission authorizes spending up to $95,000 on security upgrades at Augusta Municipal Building.

June 28, 2011: Authorities report little progress on an investigation into a burglary at the Tax Commissioner's office 18 months earlier.

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