Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Federal prosecutors say they initially tried to keep former Ayudando Guardians Inc. President Susan Harris in jail pending trial on charges that she and others stole millions of dollars from vulnerable clients – arguing in part that she was a flight risk.
Turns out they were right.
Susan and William Harris failed to show up for sentencing Monday on a number of federal fraud and money laundering charges. She was facing the prospect of life in prison. He was looking at seven years. After leading a “life of luxury” financed with stolen client money, the couple remained in the wind late Tuesday, fugitives from the law.
As the hunt for them continues, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico said Tuesday that its prosecutors sought pretrial detention after Susan Harris was first arrested in July 2017.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Yarbrough opted against pretrial detention and rejected another prosecution request to require Susan Harris to post cash bail as a condition of release. Instead, Yarbrough ruled that Harris and her husband could put up their Tanoan home in Albuquerque as security.
He ordered Harris to surrender her U.S. passport, but no electronic monitoring was required, federal records show.
Both Harris and her husband, who was a guardian at the firm, pleaded guilty in 2019 and were scheduled along with co-defendant Sharon Moore to be sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez.
The hearing in Santa Fe was to include testimony from some of the nearly 1,000 victims of the almost decadelong embezzlement scheme who relied on the firm for guardianship, conservatorship or other financial services.
Moore, Ayudando’s former chief financial officer, was the only one of the three to show up and was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison. A fourth defendant, Harris’ son Craig Young, also a guardian at the now defunct firm, pleaded guilty in November to conspiracy charges and is to be sentenced separately this spring.
After issuing arrest warrants Monday morning for Susan and William Harris, Vázquez added electronic monitoring to Young’s conditions of release. Meanwhile, the U.S. Marshals Office, the FBI and other law enforcement agents joined forces to find the Harris couple.
Susan Harris’ attorney, Bob Gorence, told the Journal on Tuesday, “I was shocked she did not appear for her sentencing after she promised a federal judge at the time of the plea that she would … and as she had for every other court hearing.”
He added, “I have no idea where she is, but as a lawyer who respects the integrity of the judicial process, I hope she returns and the case can be concluded.”
It’s rare for white-collar criminals not to return to court for hearings while on pretrial release, attorneys said.
Gorence, a former federal prosecutor, said he fears that Susan Harris “will hurt other defendants who request liberty until the time they are sentenced because the court inevitably will grow increasingly distrustful that people will keep their word and show up for their day of reckoning.”
Had they appeared for sentencing Monday, the Harris couple would have faced hours of emotional testimony from sometimes angry and tearful victims and family members who spoke of the harm Harris and her co-defendants inflicted.
Robert Perry, the father of a 38-year-old mentally ill client whose Social Security benefits were stolen, looked at Moore and told her he hoped she would “rot” in prison.
“It’s pretty sad when you take from someone and they don’t have a clue about it, so you can go on cruises and buy nice houses, and you have to be vultures of other people,” Perry testified.
There were no signs of life in the two-story house in the exclusive, gated Tanoan community where Susan and William Harris have been living. That is the same house they put up as security as a condition of their release. No one answered the door, and neighbors — who said they saw the Harrises last week — said the house was dark on Monday night.
Although the blinds were shut in nearly every window, an upright piano in one south-facing room had sheet music open halfway through a composition. On a nearby chair, a stack of papers sat in disarray under a throw pillow.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Susan Harris, 73, absconded.
The penalty under federal guidelines for the crimes to which she pleaded guilty could have been 30 years to life. Even at the low range, she would have been over 100 years old when released from prison. Absconding could tack on another 10 years.
At age 58, her husband had more to lose. The recommended sentence for his guilty plea to conspiracy was seven years – meaning he could have been out of federal prison by age 65.
In putting up their house as security for their release, they agreed the government could forfeit the home. But as part of Susan Harris’ plea agreement last July, she agreed to forfeit the home, along with another house in Tanoan, and three vehicles.
Court records offer few details about the 30-minute hearing in which Yarbrough set release conditions for Susan Harris in July 2017.
In response to questions from the Journal, Sean Sullivan, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico, said federal prosecutors asked Yarbrough “to detain Mrs. Harris as a flight risk and a danger to the community, and over our objections, the judge agreed to her release.”
But two years later, as part of a plea agreement with Susan Harris, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed not to seek her detention or any “change in the Defendant’s conditions of release prior to sentencing in the absence of a material change in circumstances, such as a violation” of her conditions of release. She pleaded guilty to 22 counts.
Life of luxury
Tipped off by several employees, federal auditors discovered that Harris, her family and chief financial officer Sharon Moore were “living the life of luxury” by stealing from the accounts of vulnerable clients who relied on the nonprofit company to handle their money and finances, according to testimony at Monday’s sentencing hearing.
The total amount siphoned rose to $11 million. That includes newly discovered losses of about $669,000 involving 81 additional victims in Mesa, Arizona, Vázquez said Monday.
Ayudando Guardians held trust and retirement accounts, but also served as a guardian, conservator or representative payee to manage government benefits for vulnerable clients who had dementia, were developmentally disabled or otherwise couldn’t handle their finances. The company was touted as a secure alternative to protect against financial exploitation by unscrupulous relatives or friends.
One victim, Carol Winter, told the judge Monday that she hired Ayudando after a real estate agent advised her to put $89,000 in proceeds from the sale of her late mother’s house into a trust fund. Winter, who said she is bipolar, found out her account had been pilfered and she ended up destitute.
“Sometimes I chose food and housing instead of medication,” she said during Monday’s hearing. “They took my money; they took my life. I ended up in a mental hospital for 12 days because of major depression.”
A tearful Emily Montaño testified that an attorney recommended she go to Ayudando after she received a $93,000 settlement from a car accident. Montaño recalled how Moore, who ran the day-to-day operations, assured her the settlement proceeds would be safe with the company, but Montaño pressed her further.
“I looked at her eye to eye and asked, ‘What if you steal it?'” And she told me, ‘We would never do that, because we are here to help people.’ ”
Like other victims, Montaño said she could never get a financial statement from Ayudando to reconcile her account balance. Only after the criminal indictments did Montaño learn she had nothing left.
“I couldn’t even (afford to) bury my daughter when she died.”
Support your local Albuquerque Journal & Colleen Heild SUBSCRIBE NOW cancel anytime