Taos U.S. Bank manager pleads guilty to embezzlement

By Jesse Moya jmoya@taosnews.com
Posted 2/27/20

The former longtime manager of the U.S. Bank on Taos Plaza, who last year was accused of stealing more than $500,000 from account holders at her branch, pleaded guilty to one felony count of embezzlement on Tuesday (Feb. 25) in a plea deal that was almost cancelled at the last minute.

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Taos U.S. Bank manager pleads guilty to embezzlement

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The former longtime manager of the U.S. Bank on Taos Plaza, who last year was accused of stealing more than $500,000 from account holders at her branch, pleaded guilty to one felony count of embezzlement on Tuesday (Feb. 25) in a plea deal that was almost cancelled at the last minute.

Three representatives from the state's U.S. Bank branch in Albuquerque, prosecuting attorney Carmela Starace and private defense attorney Alan Maestas waited for the former manager, Rose Vargas, for more than 15 minutes after the hearing was scheduled to start.

When Vargas arrived, she told Maestas that she hadn't been aware the plea conference was happening on Tuesday, leading to another lengthy delay as she convened privately with her attorney.

Maestas returned to the courtroom to ask Chief Taos District Court Judge Emilio Chavez that the sentencing hearing for the plea be scheduled for another day; he explained that he had been on vacation and had recently attended his son's birthday while the plea conference was being scheduled.

Starace immediately turned to the three bank representatives, one of whom would eventually testify at the hearing, and said she wanted to forego the plea deal and instead prosecute Vargas for the two second-degree felony counts of embezzlement over $20,000 filed in the case.

Vargas was indicted by a grand jury in 2019 for the embezzlement charges after she allegedly moved money from various accounts at the bank between 2015 and 2018. While Vargas was accused of stealing in excess of $500,000, she was only indicted for embezzling just over $100,000 from two clients in the case, according to 8th Judicial Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen. Olsen explained that other funds Vargas allegedly embezzled belonged to members of her family. He said his office chose to not pursue charges for those crimes.

Starace told Chavez that Maestas had been engaging in "shenanigans" for some time in the case, but after she and Maestas approached the bench to speak with Chavez privately, they decided to move forward with the deal later that afternoon.

Vargas agreed to the plea deal after Maestas told Chavez that a jury would be able to find her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on one of the embezzlement counts.

By waving her rights to a jury trial, Vargas agreed to the plea deal that sets her a sentencing cap of three years in prison, but how much time she will actually serve in a state correctional facility - if any - remains uncertain.

"I think she is a great candidate for probation [rather than prison]," Maestas said during a sentencing hearing that took place immediately after the plea conference.

Both sides proceeded with arguments as to why or why not Vargas should be given the sentence of three years in prison.

According to Starace, Vargas embezzled money from her parents' account at the bank. She said if Vargas were to serve the full time allowed by the plea deal, she would still be younger than her victims after serving her sentence.

Vargas had a friend and her husband, Mike Vargas, speak in her defense during the hearing.

"She is not a bad person," her husband said.

Maestas and Starace disagreed once more during the hearing when Maestas submitted written letters that spoke to Vargas' character. Chavez allowed the submission of the letters despite that they were handwritten and were not notarized.

Vargas fought back tears as she made statements to the court. She insisted she would live with the shame of what she had done forever.

"My actions are a result of my own personal failures," Vargas said. "I allowed myself to make decisions out of desperation and for that I am truly sorry."

Starace said some of the customers who had been defrauded had been sent letters from the Internal Revenue Service for the fraudulent transactions.

Chavez was unable to finalize sentencing during Tuesday's hearing. Instead, he deferred the sentencing pending a restitution plan for Vargas to pay back some of the money that was taken from the accounts.

Court staff will have up to 60 days to prepare the plan.

John Miller contributed to this report

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