Powell man charged with embezzling $1.3 million
October 12, 2023
POWELL — A Powell accountant is facing allegations that he embezzled more than $1.2 million from his employer over a 12-year period.
Carl W. Wheeler, 74, was arrested by Cody police on Monday and charged with four felony counts of theft. The charges allege that Wheeler siphoned the money from Sage Accounting, the internal business office of the Cody-based Sage Publishing Company, which owns and operates community newspapers.
Wheeler remained in the Park County Detention Center on Wednesday, with his bail set at $500,000 cash or surety.
Wheeler initially served Sage as an outside accountant, but after the business’s former bookkeeper was caught embezzling funds, he became the in-house accountant in 2004, court records say.
Continuing for the next 19 years, Wheeler worked as the head accountant for Sage. During that time period, Sage Publishing operated roughly 10 community newspapers.
It employed a couple of hundred people at publications like the Cody Enterprise, the Douglas Budget, the Cody-based shopper the Buyer’s Guide and the Gillette News Record. (The Enterprise and News Record sold to a new owner last year, while the Buyer’s Guide, which was jointly owned by the Powell Tribune, closed.)
At Sage’s business office, Wheeler managed a complicated arrangement of business entities and payments.
“He’s been our guy,” company part-owner Bob Kennedy told police, according to charging documents. “We trusted him with everything.”
Kennedy contacted police in September about a series of suspicious transactions. In August, for example, Wheeler allegedly sent himself $10,000 via ACH: $6,000 to his account at First Bank of Wyoming, $2,000 to his PayPal account and $2,000 to his account at Wise, which facilitates international money transfers.
According to charging documents, Kennedy told police that it appeared Wheeler had been “cooking the books” to hide what he was doing.
From April 2022 to March 2023, Sage Publishing’s general ledger showed negative $75,500 worth of retained earnings, offset by monthly entries for “sale of equipment.”
However, Kennedy reported “there was no ‘sale of equipment’ and again he believed it was Wheeler showing his intent to hide the theft,” Cody Police Det. Scott Burlingame wrote in an affidavit.
After being confronted by Kennedy, Wheeler allegedly admitted that he’d “borrowed” $160,788.66 since April 2022.
“I had no idea it reached that level,” he reportedly wrote in a September email to Kennedy, adding that he was working on a plan to pay back the money.
Records obtained by Burlingame indicate Wheeler had borrowed and repaid about $70,000 in the past, with permission.
Wheeler allegedly explained that he took the recent money because his wife, who lives in Ukraine, had run into medical problems.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” Wheeler reportedly told police in a Monday interview in Powell.
He is also quoted as saying Sage should have had more internal controls, such as by having a third-party review his accounting.
“I asked Wheeler if, the way the accounting is done right now, it has the potential to be abused,” Burlingame wrote. “Wheeler responded in the affirmative by saying ‘mm-hm’ and nodding his head up and down.”
Wheeler also indicated he’d lost track of how much he’d borrowed over the past 18 months amid his stress and worry.
“I was absolutely shocked when I went through and run up the amounts,” he’s quoted as saying.
By that point, however, police, First Bank and Sage had gathered evidence indicating Wheeler had taken much more money. The affidavit alleges that, starting in 2011, Wheeler manipulated monthly ACH payments to a part owner of the company, adding extra funds that he diverted to his own accounts.
In total, Burlingame said it appeared the accountant had stolen $1,283,550.66.
The four pending counts of theft relate to four different bank accounts that Wheeler is alleged to have used for the transactions.
Another $59,300 went to unknown accounts, mostly over the past 18 months, Burlingame added.
Deputy Park County Attorney Larry Eichele appeared to allude to those transactions at Monday’s hearing, saying, “There are some pending sums that may be tacked onto this [case], depending on how it unfolds.”
During Monday’s interview, Burlingame told Wheeler they believed he’d taken substantially more money than he’d admitted and told him to be honest.
“A short time later, Wheeler said, ‘I think we’re done talking,’” Burlingame wrote.
The detective then decided to arrest him, citing Wheeler’s pending plans to travel to Ukraine and the “unknown amount of funds” in his possession.
Eichele argued for a $1 million bond at Tuesday’s hearing, citing the “grave amount” of money involved in the case, and Wheeler’s “high flight risk.”
However, Wheeler said he had “nowhere near” the assets needed to post that figure. In fact, Wheeler was appointed a public defender after submitting a sworn statement that indicated he couldn’t afford to hire his own lawyer.
Though Eichele was openly incredulous, Park County Circuit Court Judge Joey Darrah said the defendant appeared to qualify for a court-appointed attorney, based on modest income.
Wheeler’s daughter made a tearful plea for a lower bond, explaining that she needs his support.
“My father’s a 74-year-old man and has no business being in jail,” she said, adding, “We’ll do whatever it takes.”
Darrah went with the $500,000 bond figure, but with requirements that Wheeler turn in his passport and wear a location-tracking ankle monitor if he makes bond.
“That’s the only way I’m going to be able to justify reducing what Mr. Eichele’s recommended,” the judge said, adding to Wheeler that, “I do want you to get out and I do want to do this for the benefit of your daughter. … I hope you think about her.”
A preliminary hearing in the case is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 18.
This story was published on October 12, 2023.