Woman who stole $13K in schools funds avoids jail time

Janel Echiberi
Janel Echiberi

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A woman who admitted to stealing more than $13,000 from Lehua Elementary in Pearl City avoided jail time at her sentencing Wednesday.

Circuit Judge Richard Perkins also gave Janel Echiberi, 35, a chance to keep the multiple felonies off her permanent record.

With her side of the courtroom full of supporters, Janel Echiberi wiped away tears as she listened to her former boss talk about the damage she inflicted on children attending Lehua Elementary.

"As a result of her crime, the students and staff have had to do without programs, activities and supplies," Fay Toyama, school principal, said. "As a result of her crime, the school and staff have been publicly embarrassed."

The then-school aide was issued a Sam's Club charge card to make purchases, such as school supplies, but bought $12,721.22 worth of stuff for herself instead. State prosecutors say her personal shopping list included a king-sized bed, a high-definition television, a digital camera, tires for her vehicle, clothing, dog food, beer and wine, and prescription contact lenses.

She also put herself on Lehua's payroll as a tutor, even though she wasn't one, and paid herself $738.88.

The defense argued that Echiberi is an upstanding member of the Waianae community and a hard-working mother of three, who was going through a difficult period in her life at the time.

"There were pressures that were brought to bear on Ms. Echiberi and she exercised poor judgment," Benjamin Ignacio, defense attorney, said.

Pressures, he says, that included the terminal illness of her mother, whom she was a caregiver for.

"I do recognize that my actions are not excused by the circumstances that I was experiencing," the defendant said. "I admit to the wrong that has been done."

In October, Echiberi pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree theft and one count of second-degree forgery.

She has since paid back the money she stole. But without a fine imposed, prosecutors say it simply amounts to a $13,000 no-interest loan.

"Many people that commit theft believe that if I pay the money back, it's all okay," Christopher Young, deputy attorney general, said. "But what is the penalty for taking that money?"

The judge denied the request for a fine.

Instead, he ordered Echiberi to perform 450 hours of community service, and also granted her a deferral, which means the crime will be wiped off her record if she stays out of trouble for the next five years.

"The state's very disappointed," Young said. "This was a multiple, very sophisticated theft and she should not have been given that break."

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