Judge: 'This was not a mistake'

Sarah Kurtz, 50, of Eau Claire, sits next to defense lawyer Damian Nunzio Monday at her sentencing hearing at the Berrien County Courthouse. Kurtz pleaded guilty in late April to embezzlement of $50,000 to $100,000. She was sentenced Monday to 120 days in jail, five years probation, 200 hours community service, plus $272,787 in restitution. That was the actual amount she took from the Village Seventh-Day Adventist School in Berrien Springs over seven years while working there.

ST. JOSEPH — A tearful Sarah Kurtz turned to face her victims Monday in a Berrien County courtroom and apologized to them, then apologized to her family and friends also in the courtroom.

“I’m so sorry for what I did and I thank you for your support,” Kurtz told members of her family, including her husband, Berrien County Sheriff’s Lt. Martin Kurtz.

She then turned her attention forward and apologized to Berrien County Trial Court Judge Sterling Schrock, who sentenced her for embezzlement. She will spend 120 days in the Berrien County jail before beginning five years probation. The judge also ordered 200 hours of community service, $2,628 in fines and costs and $272,787 in restitution to Village Seventh-Day Adventist School in Berrien Springs.

Kurtz has admitted to stealing the money over seven years between January 2011 and September 2018 while working as the private school’s secretary/treasurer.

“This was not a mistake. It was not a singular act. It was multiple acts over seven years. That’s a long time,” Schrock said in a courtroom packed with supporters of Kurtz and members of the Berrien Springs community, including school officials. They declined comment after the sentencing.

While working at the school, Kurtz had access to and embezzled money by means of automatic bill payments, use of the school’s debit card for personal purchases, fund transfers to a personal account, and by cash payments.

She originally was charged with embezzlement of $100,000 or more, a 20-year felony. In late April, she pleaded guilty to embezzlement of $50,000 to $100,000, a felony carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. But Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Rory McBryde said he would recommend no prison time, in part because Kurtz had no prior criminal record. Further he said, it was most important for the victims to get back all the money taken.

Kurtz’s lawyer, Damian Nunzio, had submitted letters of support for her to the court, and Schrock said he had read them.

“This was a mistake. A big mistake,” Nunzio told the judge. He said she has been taking care of her parents and wants to continue doing that.

Schrock said that while Kurtz has been cooperative and forthright throughout the investigation, it was not until a teacher’s paycheck bounced that anything came to light.

“That’s what led to an investigation. Based on the support you have from your family and the community, they didn’t expect this of you,” the judge said. “Whatever sentence I give you, that’s not going to be the end of the consequences for you. I’m extraordinarily aware of the consequences and impact on the people around you.”

Schrock told Kurtz she’s not the first person he’s had to sentence that was in a fiduciary position of trust, and people in a position of trust need to be held to a higher standard.

“You’re not a clerk in a store skimming off the till to buy diapers for her child,” the judge said.

Prosecutors have said state police investigated the embezzlement case and, as part of the investigation looked into whether Martin Kurtz was involved in or aware of what his wife was doing. McBryde said police could find no evidence that he knew.

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