Not long after Laguna Nursery office manager Christine Black took on the extra responsibility of bookkeeping for the nursery and landscape business the first duplicate check was issued to her in the amount of $2,430.
The embezzlement scheme that court records show began Feb. 22, 2013, went on routinely once or twice a month undetected for nearly three years. The final looting occurred on Christmas Day, 2015.
Though police quantified the losses at $68,000 and estimate a true tally could be as high as $125,000, the impact forced the closure of what horticulturist and nursery owner Ruben Flores had lovingly assembled. In August 2015, even as the bleeding continued, Flores liquidated the inventory of architectural pediments, mature specimens and ceramic pots that stylishly stocked the terraces of 1370 S. Coast Highway. He reopened the nursery within a few months in cramped quarters in North Laguna.
And last week the former employee entered a guilty plea to 38 counts of forgery and identity theft in Harbor Court and was sentenced to 16 months in jail and restitution. Investigators intend to also pursue an interstate warrant to re-arrest Black at the conclusion of her sentence to extradite her return to North Carolina.
“It blindsided all of us,” said Flores, who recalled finding an unblemished history when he checked Black’s records in California. “My whole family loved her. She was cheery and helpful, not suspicious at all. She seemed so benevolent.”
Police investigator Jordan Mirakian said Black was raiding the till of Laguna Nursery to live beyond her means as well as make restitution payments to Sharon K. Hopper Fine Gardening, of Stokesdale, N.C., a condition of her parole for a similar scheme where she embezzled $100,000.
“My worry is she’ll do this again to another small business,” Mirakian said.
The thefts came to light after Flores hired a second bookkeeper and reported the suspected employee theft to police in March 2016. Black quit the day her parole was supposed to end, Flores said.
While the investigator believes Black also siphoned off an undetermined amount of cash from the business, he built his case around 38 checks that Black had issued to herself and masked by attributing the payment to Laguna Nursery vendors.
“She was very cunning how she did it,” said Mirakian, who arrested the Lake Forest resident last November. She has remained in jail since.
He said Black could successfully “bam-boozle” small-business owners that rely on the professional expertise of others and lack internal secondary financial controls. “I wasn’t keeping an eye on it,” said Flores, who has tightened financial controls since.
“I would have never guessed it,” said client Jorja Puma, who hired Flores’ Visionscape to landscape her Laguna Beach home in 2011 and became personal friends with the owner and knew Black well. “She was an excellent con artist. She befriended all of us,” Puma said.
Last week, Mirakian summoned Flores from a job to court in order to pick up a first restitution payment of $15,000. He put in a court appearance in his normal business attire, shorts and a t-shirt. “He was happy and relieved,” Mirakian said. “But he doesn’t expect to see any more.”