A settlement conference was scheduled Wednesday in the case of a woman who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from a well-known local auto body company, nearly causing it to go out of business.

Attorney Richard Edgar, who represents Laura Matus, requested the meeting after Yuma County Superior Court Judge David Haws informed him of the sentence the court intended to impose on his client.

Haws stated that he planned to sentence Matus to serve 60 months of probation, and order that she pay $346,000 in restitution to Dicks Auto Rebuilders, located at 201 W. 24th St., where she had worked for 34 years as the office manager before being fired.

As a condition of that probation, he continued, Matus would also have to serve 90 days in jail, without credit for any time previously served.

Matus pleaded guilty May 15 to one count of theft as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. In doing so, she had to admit that from Jan. 2015 through Dec. 17, 2018, she embezzled more than $100,000 from the company by writing checks to herself and making unauthorized cash withdrawls.

A settlement conference is a meeting between the prosecution, the judge and defense attorneys in an attempt to reach a resolution without having to go to trial.

After hearing no opposition from the prosecution, Haws granted Edgar's request for a settlement conference and scheduled it for 3:30 p.m. on July 17. Sentencing is set to follow.

According to court records from December 2017, Linda Rautenberg, who is the wife of Warren Rautenberg, the owner of Dicks Auto Rebuilders, became suspicious that Matus might be stealing from the company after she went to pick up her dry cleaning and was given items that belonged to her, such as comforters and home goods.

While employed at Dicks, Matus was given a leased vehicle to drive. The company paid her cellphone bill and the dry cleaning of her work attire, in addition to her salary.

When Linda Rautenberg started looking into the checking account, in which she is a signee, she discovered that a substantial number of checks had been made out to Matus, when she was only allotted five checks a month.

She went on to discover that Matus had been writing checks to herself throughout the month, sometimes even multiple checks in one day. None of the checks were for less than $500.

Linda Rautenberg fired Matus in December 2017. When Matus' desk was cleared out, a stack of pre-written checks was found underneath her desktop calendar already made out to her.

In January 2018, Linda Rautenberg reported the embezzlement to the Yuma Police Department, explaining that her husband had given control over their business' bookkeeping, payroll, tax preparation and tax deposits to Matus. She added that in all of those years her husband never checked into the management of those accounts.

She also informed police that she had noticed that Matus had made several high-end purchases, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and other off-road vehicles. She had also made several visits to a casino.

An ongoing audit of the company's accounts revealed that, from 2016 and 2017, Matus had been using the company's business account to make payments on her own credit card, write checks to family members, and buy groceries.

The accounts showed that Matus had overpaid herself $108,000 in cash and checks, and that she was making $2,300 a week in salary. She had also made $150,000 in payments on her own credit card. It is believed that she had been stealing from the company for years.

During the audit it was also revealed that Matus had prepared the company's 2015 IRS tax returns, along with those of several other employees, and charged the business $700. In addition to not listing herself as the preparer, she also did the returns while at work.

The Rautenbergs also had to sell property they owned to pay the City of Yuma $39,000 in back taxes so they wouldn't lose the business. Matus had failed to pay taxes for six years and hid the notices.

When Matus was interviewed May 10, she told Yuma police that she had been fired for "taping into the tills." She also stated that in addition to her weekly salary, she had other verbal agreements with the company's owner that no one else knew about.

She continued by saying that the owner of the company had promised it to her, so she believed that it would be hers one day. She, at one point, also told investigators that she had endured many years of verbal abuse from the Rautenbergs and that it had caused her self-esteem to plummet.

She was arrested after the interview and booked into Yuma County jail.

James Gilbert can be reached at jgilbert@yumasun.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.

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