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Trial starts for woman accused in embezzlement
Ex-employee of ZF suspected in more than $650,000 in thefts
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A Hall County Superior Court jury has decideed Charlotte Jo Baghose, accused of embezzling from her employer, ZF Industries, is mentally competent to stand trial. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Managers at Gainesville transmission maker ZF Industries considered Charlotte Jo Baghose a dedicated, hardworking and diligent employee of 20 years.

So when company officials began investigating financial irregularities within the plant, the longtime accounting manager was considered an unlikely suspect.

"I actually did not believe it at first," ZF Industries North American President Elizabeth Umberson testified in court Tuesday. "I was shocked."

By the time they had finished their internal probe in August and September 2007, company auditors had uncovered 450 questionable checks totaling more than $650,000 in fraudulent expenses, Umberson said. Baghose, who was videotaped at a Gainesville bank cashing a voided check made out to a third party, was fired and later arrested.

"This case is about greed and deception," Assistant District Attorney Juliet Aldridge told a Hall County Superior Court jury during opening statements in Baghose’s forgery and theft trial. At some point in her career with the company, Baghose decided that her salary, benefits and bonuses weren’t enough, Aldridge said.

"She decided she would take more from the company, and that’s exactly what she did," Aldridge said.

Baghose’s attorney, Miles Cowan, told the jury that the case had "minimal police involvement," in an investigation conducted internally by company officials, and "there was never another suspect other than Miss Baghose."

Cowan said the company’s computerized accounting system required supporting documentation for expense checks like the ones authorities say Baghose forged.

"Miss Baghose didn’t run that system," Cowan said. "Three other employees did."

Umberson testified that Baghose was the only one who had a key for the machine that printed checks. Baghose was responsible for accounts receivable, accounts payable and reconciling the books at the end of the month for the plant, which employs about 220 people. Baghose did all the company’s local banking, Umberson testified.

"Charlotte was the face of ZF to Wachovia bank," Umberson said.

Aldridge told the jury in her opening statement that since at least 2003, Baghose conducted an "elaborate scheme" in which she would create expense checks, sometimes for interns from Germany no longer working in Gainesville, void them or have another employee void them in the system, then cash them at Wachovia’s main Gainesville branch on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Baghose had a preferred teller she used who would cash the third-party checks, which were made out to someone other than Baghose, according to the prosecutor. The teller did not question the practice.

"Miss Baghose was very smart in how she hid the thefts from the company, and she got away with it for years," Aldridge said.

Company officials aren’t sure when the alleged thefts began. Audits were conducted only as far back as 2002. Going back further would have required "going into large amounts of labor, and it didn’t seem to be worth it to add more counts to the charges," Umberson said.

Earlier Tuesday, a separate jury found Baghose competent to stand trial. Cowan implied that she may be suffering from dementia, but jurors found that she understood the object and nature of the court proceedings and could assist her attorney.

Baghose’s attorney is expected to cross-examine the company president today as the trial continues.

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