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In 1998, attorney Mark Dean opened a law office in Shelbyville, and Jody Wills, 23, the new mother of an infant son, left her job as a teller at Citizens Union Bank to be his office manager.
She immediately won Dean’s trust, admiration and his affection. For seven years she was his aide de camp, bookkeeper and – ultimately – his lover.
And all that time, Jody Wills was stealing.
Today, when Wills, now 35 and the mother of two, leaves her job, she will walk out of Shelbyville Physical Therapy and be transported to her new home, a cell at the Shelby County Detention Center.
That’s where she will live for the next 9 months after she admitted that she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from Dean’s accounts in an elaborate embezzling scheme that lasted at least four years.
Senior Judge Steve Mershon handed down that sentence last Friday, stunning prosecutors who were expecting something closer to the 10 years to which Wills had agreed, and ordered her to pay back $720,000 that she admitted she stole from Dean.
And so ended a highly publicized, 5-year investigation into a crime that stretched from the Federal Bureau of Investigation down Main Street of Shelbyville and into a courtroom, where we learned how lust for wealth and power created a path of lies that led to larceny.
Neither Wills, her lawyers or any of her family members would comment about her time with Dean or the crimes to which she has admitted.
But court records, transcripts and investigators’ interviews examined by The Sentinel-News detail a melodrama that is the stuff of news magazines, soap operas and novels.
When the thefts began
Charges against Wills date back to 2001, but Shelby County Commonwealth's Attorney Laura Donnell, the lead prosecutor in the case, said she believes they began much earlier, perhaps all the way back to when Dean first hired Wills.
Bank records aren’t available for those years, and the trail of deceit walked by Wills wasn’t even known until 2005, when Dean received a phone call from Citizens Union Bank, telling him that his escrow account was overdrawn.
When investigators began to look into what had happened, there was so much detail that Wills was charged in four separate indictments:
§ Sept. 3, 2008, for failure to make required disposition of property.
§ Oct. 8, 2008, for tampering with physical evidence.
§ Nov. 26, 2008, 11 counts of theft by unlawful taking of $300.
§ Nov. 4, 2009, 19 counts of theft by unlawful taking over $300.
The number of charges ultimately reached 39.
As office administrator, Wills had the run of Dean’s firm, including oversight of its operating and escrow accounts, and Kentucky State Police Detective Jim Griffin, the chief investigator, said that the schemes she employed to pull off the thefts astounded KSP’s auditors.
“The auditors told me some of the schemes were as good as they’d seen in their entire careers,” Griffin said.
KSP Auditor Carl Thomas Koon said that the case was so huge he couldn’t handle it alone and had to have the assistance of another auditor.
“It was a very large case that took a lot of time, so it was more difficult than others,” he said. “Also, dealing with $2.6 million in kited checks made it very confusing.”
Wills wrote herself duplicate payroll checks and paid her credit cards and the mortgage payments on her home with funds stolen from Dean’s escrow accounts, which lawyers are required to maintain so that clients’ retainers and legal fees are separated from normal cash flow.
To cover up these thefts, Wills floated checks among numerous banks that involved more than $2.6 million.
And when she left Dean's employment after the thefts were discovered in 2005, Dean’s escrow account at CUB was $840,000 in the negative.
Wills took a job at a Lexington law office, Stites and Harbison, where she was fired when she was indicted for embezzlement in 2008.
Where the money went
Wills never has admitted how she spent all that money. There was no huge change in her lifestyle, and her husband, former Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Wills, later told investigators he had no idea what was going on.
Even in court, after Wills admitted to the crimes, she had a simple response to Donnell’s questions of where the money went:
"I spent it," she said.
But Donnell pointed out in a series of slides she displayed in court that Wills did not use the money she stole to put food on the table or to pay medical bills for a sick child.
Rather, she spent it on herself – for clothing, jewelry, eating out and going on trips.
And court records offer a few more details.
She paid off her car and a line of credit. She spent almost a thousand dollars on theater tickets in Lexington, bought jewelry and clothing at such establishments as Dillards and Premier Design. She gave $10,000 to a family member.
And she spent nearly $4,000 on a breast enhancement procedure.
Significant amounts of cash were also deposited into her bank account, and Donnell in court showed a graphic that displayed Wills’ spending far exceeding her earnings.
Dean told investigators that Wills had worked for him ever since he opened his own law practice in 1998. "She did everything, and she was good at it," he said.
He told investigators that he had trusted her and reiterated that in court, saying, "I trusted her with my life."
But Dean and Wills, a petite brunette, were much more than employer and trusted employee. Sometime during their seven years together, they became embroiled in a love affair that continued throughout her employment at the firm.
"I had a sexual affair with Jody for years while she worked for me," Dean told investigators. "It was going on pretty much up to the time that this was found."
Shortly before she left Dean’s office, Wills went to Frankfort and filed for divorce from Daniel Wills. But, investigators say, she never told her husband she intended to divorce him and later dropped the proceedings in what they believe was an attempt to stay in Dean’s good graces.
But even while she was sleeping with Dean, Wills was robbing him.
Dean said that when he found out in a phone call from CUB bank that his escrow account was overdrawn, he confronted Wills, who tried to wiggle out of it.
She initially told him it was a mix up, and that she would take care of it. Then, when his suspicions deepened and he asked her if she had taken money from the office, she told him that she had, but that she planned to pay him back with money she would get from her grandfather.
A few days later, she gave him $30,000.
"I later found out that she had taken an advance on my credit card for the amount," Dean told detectives. "She paid me back with my own money."
Wills’ acts have left him scarred, Dean said.
"I don't trust anybody now," he said. "I just don't."
During the time that Wills was collecting the money and spending it so lavishly on such obvious items, detectives turned their focus on Daniel Wills, who had been a police officer since 2003.
Griffin said in court records that he contacted Wills and asked for his cooperation. He said that when he explained to Wills that he had just interviewed his wife and that she was responsible for a theft of at least $600,000 from Dean's law office, Daniel Wills completely broke down.
"I can't believe all of this," he told Griffin. "I didn't have any idea. I guess I am just a naïve dumb-ass. I don't know anything about her taking any money."
Daniel Wills told investigators said that Jody Wills handled all the family’s finances and that he would give her $968 each month for the house payment. She took care of everything else.
Investigators ultimately cleared Wills of any wrongdoing, and he was never placed on leave by the sheriff’s office. In 2009 he resigned and now is employed at Southern States. He and Jody Wills remain married.
After Wills’ schemes were unraveled and the accounting complete, Dean said he owed CUB $840,000.
And because of escrow accounts are under federal law, the FBI had begun an investigation. Dean could have been charged, and he could have been disbarred.
"I had to sell a farm and take out a loan to make good on the account," he told investigators. "This has cost me a fortune, and I almost lost everything."
He said he already has paid $220,000 just in interest on that debt and is nowhere near paying off the principle.
He filed a lawsuit in January 2008 against Commonwealth Bank and Trust, saying that bank was complicit by allowing Jody Wills to divert his funds for her own use by providing her with generic counter checks that did not have his preprinted personal information on them. These accounts were separate, operating accounts.
When that matter came up in court on Dec. 23, John McGarvey, attorney for Commonwealth Bank, asked Circuit Judge Charles Hickman for a dismissal of that suit, saying that Dean's allegations against the bank were unfounded.
"Yes, Mr. Dean is a victim; he is a victim of not reading his bank statement," he told the judge. "A copy of every one of those counter checks was on there."
The suit remains unresolved.
In December, Wills pleaded guilty to 30 counts against her – nine others were thrown out – and agreed to the state’s request for a sentence of 10 years with no probation.
At the sentencing hearing Friday, Wills, dressed in a dark business suit, her hair piled atop her head and wearing glasses, sat between her attorney, Timothy Dennison and Gary Tabler, and appealed to the judge for leniency.
"I beg for mercy from this court," she said, weeping, telling Mershon about her children and how they needed her, her sobbing sometimes rendering her voice almost inaudible.
She apologized to both Dean and her husband, calling Daniel Wills a "loving, supportive, Christian man."
Said Donnell: "Clearly, she wasn't thinking about her children before."
After ordering Wills to serve 9 months in jail with work release, Mershon explained that he did not order her imprisoned because doing so would make her unable to make restitution payments.
As he listened, Dean frequently wiped away tears, his emotions obvious.
But he said later that he was not moved during Wills' statement because he felt sorry for her but because he was upset by having to relive the entire nightmare publicly, which was painful as well as embarrassing.
And he said that he was okay with the sentence Mershon imposed.
"I'm happy with the judge's decision," he said. "It might be a way to help me get some restitution.
“It wouldn't hurt my feelings any if she had got 10 years hard labor, but I accept what he did, and I'm pleased with how he handled the case."