When Braselton real estate developers Jay and Susan Bullock hired Michelle Sanchez to manage their company’s books nine years ago, they quickly took under their wings the young Brenau University graduate whose parents had died.
"She was like a daughter to us," Susan Bullock said Tuesday.
The Bullocks took Sanchez on trips to New York City and Tampa. The couple, who own Buford-based Jay Bullock Companies, built their trusted controller’s first two homes.
But Sanchez secretly was stealing from her benefactors, according to police.
Since 2005, Sanchez embezzled more than $550,000 from The Jay Bullock Companies, using the money to pay for a Jaguar, a Cadillac Escalade, $13,000 in landscaping and a $40,000 swimming pool at her Gainesville home in the Georgian Acres subdivision, Susan Bullock said.
Red flags first arose in July, and police were notified in October. Gwinnett County Police charged Sanchez, 34, with one count of felony theft by taking on Friday.
"We were just devastated by this," Susan Bullock said. "It’s been very difficult — the betrayal of trust has been a huge factor."
Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Illana Spellman said Sanchez was released from jail Sunday after posting a $110,000 signature bond. Sanchez is accused of making seven unauthorized transactions, including writing company checks out to her husband’s framing business, A.M. Sanchez and Sons, paying off credit card debt and making a down payment on land in Banks County, Spellman said.
Bullock said Sanchez was able to avoid detection for close to two years by forging company bank statements using "cut and paste" computer techniques.
The Bullocks finally discovered the thefts when their bank mistakenly mailed the monthly statement to their home and they noticed discrepancies.
The couple hired a former federal investigator to track the thefts. What he found was a paper trail of canceled checks, endorsements and bank debits, Susan Bullock said. The company, which has five full-time employees and builds between 75 and 150 new homes a year, was hit hard by the theft, Bullock said.
"It was significant," she said.
In one month, Sanchez debited more than $4,000 in company money to BellSouth for phone calls to Mexico, where the theft suspect’s husband was living, Bullock said. She paid her husband’s company $9,000 a month with Jay Bullock Companies paychecks, Bullock said.
At the Georgian Acres subdivision off Poplar Springs Road where Sanchez lived, neighbors noted a steady stream of Federal Express and UPS deliveries, Bullock said.
"They wondered how in the world she was affording all this," Bullock said.
Sanchez, who earned $45,000 a year working for the Bullocks before being fired, did not return a phone message left on her cell phone Tuesday.
Bullock said she wanted other business owners to be aware of the risks of placing too much trust in one employee.
"If someone would have told us six months ago, ‘Be careful,’ we would have said, ‘We’re OK. We don’t have a problem,’" Bullock said. "People ask us if we’re embarrassed that this happened to us. We’re not — we haven’t done anything wrong. It was just our trust that got in the way."