A pre-trial hearing is set for Feb. 27 in Orange County Superior Court in a case of felony grand theft involving a Laguna Beach marketer and its bookkeeper-office manager, who prosecutors allege embezzled $265,000.
On Jan. 25, a day after her arrest by Laguna Beach police, Nhora Johanna Tellez, 38, of Costa Mesa, entered not guilty pleas to four felony grand theft counts and denied six sentencing enhancement allegations associated with the thefts. Her attorney, Michael Guisti, declined to discuss his client’s case. “It’s a huge burden for the D.A.,” Guisti predicted, declining further comment.
Prosecutors allege Tellez spent the embezzled funds on personal expenses that included veterinarian visits, entertainment expenses, living expenses, and vacations that involved the purchase of airline tickets.
Tellez’s arrest represents the third significant embezzlement scheme involving local small business owners untangled by authorities in the past year. In the earlier two cases, losses due to bookkeeper thefts nearly drove a salon owner out of business and forced retrenchment by a nursery. Sgt. Jim Cota advised small business owners to make background checks before hiring financial personnel and to create some mechanism for oversight.
Police arrested Tellez after a two-year investigation instigated Jan. 22, 2016, by the owner of Laguna Coast Corporation, which markets trade show and publishing research. The owner’s financial advisor discovered the suspected theft, Cota said. The owner did not respond to a request for comment.
At the time, the business owner suspected the company bookkeeper, who he had employed since 2012, had defrauded him of $80,000. The investigation that involved the major fraud unit in the district attorney’s office revealed larger losses of $265,000. Ultimately, investigators believe Tellez pulled off the theft by gaining the trust of the owner, who allowed her control of his accounts. Investigators suspect Tellez changed the login information for all of the victim’s investments and credit card accounts and rerouted notifications to an email address she held.
Police said they obtained images of Tellez at ATM machines throughout the county completing fraudulent transactions. She has no previous criminal record, Cota said.
The four felony counts listed in court records occurred in 2012 and 2013.