Sixty-two-year-old Phyllis Woods' legal battle ended Thursday morning in Gila County Superior Court when she changed her not guilty plea to guilty on four counts of fraudulent schemes and artifices.
A former bookkeeper for the Payson Unified School District, Woods will be sentenced in superior court in August and will face at least five years in prison, her attorney, Arthur Lloyd, said.
"It's a really sad case," Lloyd said. "Some people get addicted to drugs, some people get addicted to alcohol, some people get addicted to cigarettes. Unfortunately, I believe she had an addiction that ended up causing her to spend more money than she made."
Lloyd declined to elaborate on her addiction, but officials discovered that Woods had made numerous cash withdrawals from automated teller machines at several casinos. Payson Police detectives began investigating allegations of theft last fall when they received a tip from school officials. Armed with a search warrant, detectives searched the manufactured home Woods shared with her husband, Paul, on school property near Rim Country Middle School. There, they found evidence in her records that she had paid personal bills with checks written out of the school district's revolving fund.
During the investigation, school officials and state auditors found that roughly $161,000 had been pilfered from school coffers over a period of four years.
"We never could pin down how much was actually gone," Lloyd said. "She maintained that she put some of the money back on a regular basis. I couldn't really prove it, one way or the other."
Woods was formally indicted in February on four counts of fraudulent schemes and artifices, four counts of misuse of public funds, four counts of theft, and four counts of trafficking in stolen property.
"You have to understand, she got 16 felony charges against her," Lloyd said. "Four of them are schemes and artifices and those are the ones she plead guilty to. We had absolutely no defense to that. I think part of a defense attorney's job is to point out to his client the futility, sometimes, of going to trial. If she had gone to trial and been convicted on all 16 counts, it would have been much worse than it already is."
School officials confirmed that the district's insurance company had reimbursed the school district for the missing money, although at press time, they could not reveal exactly what amount the check was for.
"It's just a sad case all around," Lloyd said. "Her husband died of a heart attack shortly after this happened. She's worked for the school district for 18 years; bad things happened the last four years.
"It's just too bad she didn't get any help for her problem before it got out of hand."
Woods will be sentenced in Gila County Superior Court at 11 a.m. Aug. 17 in Payson.