(UPDATE: Sharon Baldwin was sentenced to prison on March 7. See below for details.)
A supervisor for Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona pleaded guilty on Monday to stealing $313,000 in park entrance fees in a long-running embezzlement scam.
Like the world-famous park's notorious rock thieves, Sharon Baldwin, the park's former fee supervisor, only stole a little at a time — but as court records detail, the theft added up to a massive impact over the years.
The theft had significant impact at the park, limiting what could be done to improve visitor services in the past five years, Park Superintendent Brad Traver says.
Eighty percent of entrance fees go to enhancing visitor services, he says. In this case, that would likely have meant more roadside exhibits at the park and more rehabilitation of visitor facilities.
"It was definitely a shock to learn of her actions, but she no longer works here," Traver says. "The public has a high standard of trust for public employees, and when that trust is broken, it's difficult for all of us. I want to assure the public and visitors that appropriate disciplinary action is being taken in this case."
Records show that Baldwin and prosecutors with the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office had conferred prior to Monday's proceedings, which combined her initial appearance, arraignment, and plea hearing. U.S. District Judge David Duncan ordered Baldwin released on her own recognizance after she entered the guilty plea.
Baldwin became a Supervisory Visitor Use Assistant at the park in 2008, and she began embezzling in September 2010, her plea deal states. From February 2011 to April 2016, she admits, she stole portions of park entrance fees for her own use and "altered electronic records and documentation to conceal the theft," which amounted ultimately to $313,000.
The 110-year-old, 200,000-acre park attracts an estimated 800,000 visitors annually and features one of the best-preserved collections of ancient, petrified wood in the world.
Her sentencing hearing is set for March 6. The plea deal calls for Baldwin to pay back the stolen money, possibly from behind bars. The Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman declined comment on the case.
Baldwin's local defense attorney, Jason Lamm, says federal sentencing guidelines call for a probable 12- to 18-month prison sentence. That's less than she might have gotten if she hadn't cooperated with prosecutors, who offered leniency for making a "full and complete disclosure" as to what happened and accepting responsibility.
However, the plea deal doesn't indicate what Baldwin did with the money, or if she still has it. She's agreed to allow access to her credit report, and also agrees not to hide or spend any assets prior to her sentencing hearing beyond required daily expenses. Lamm says questions about how she spent the money are best made to Baldwin; Baldwin didn't return a message on Tuesday. Less time in prison, with a possible work-release at some point, will allow her to get back to work and "right her wrongs" by reimbursing the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees national parks, the stolen money.
Ironically, Baldwin blasted the park's infamous thieves of petrified wood in a prominent 2011 news article, saying, "We tell [thieves], 'It is other people’s park. It's your park that you’re stealing from.'"
Note: Story updated on Tuesday morning with comments from Superintendent Traver.
On March 7, Arizona U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa sentenced Sharon Baldwin to one year in prison. She must self-surrender by March 24. Upon her release from prison, Humetewa ordered, Baldwin must pay restitution of $3,400 of the $313,000 she stole.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.