By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The deadline for former used car dealer Keith Birdwell came and went yesterday, to pay back a portion of what he allegedly owes a local bank so he could take advantage of a plea deal to avoid a potential lengthy prison term.
But prosecutors allowed a reprieve.
Birdwell, 48, and his wife were charged early last year in Lewis County Superior Court with theft, for allegedly using various deceptions to dodge repaying what they borrowed for the vehicles at Birdwell Auto Sales in Centralia and their lot in Lacey. Both businesses are now closed.
A court hearing was set for 1 p.m. but it wasn’t until 20 minutes later when the proceedings convened.
Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Eric Eisenberg indicated they’d like to postpone sentencing.
Tacoma-based defense attorney Keith McFie told the judge his client was scrambling.
“One of the major sources of funds dropped out,” McFie said.
Eisenberg said he learned that day that getting the money wasn’t working out.
“There was a potential avenue by which he was going to acquire those funds,” Eisenberg said. “That’s changed to a different avenue.”
The criminal case came out of a lengthy investigation by the Centralia Police Department, with losses claimed by Security State Bank of more than $1 million. The amount of restitution is in dispute. The portion which Birdwell must pay before getting sentenced has not been disclosed.
The couple was accompanied by more than a dozen apparent supporters in the Chehalis courtroom.
Toledo resident Renee Buswell called it heartbreaking to watch those she loves lose their business and the home they raised their children in. Keith Birdwell is her husband’s cousin, she said.
“And be forced to plead to a crime they didn’t commit simply because they’ve run out of resources, and they have nothing left to fight the case,” Buswell said.
Keith Birdwell pleaded guilty in May to one count of first-degree theft and three counts of felony unlawful issuance of a bank check.
His wife Lorrine D. Birdwell was originally charged the same as her husband, but as part of his deal, she was offered a chance to plead guilty to attempted second-degree theft, a gross misdemeanor.
“That was our agreement,” Eisenberg told the judge.
Eisenberg said that both Birdwells maintained he was the major player while she was less culpable, mostly signing documents.
Her lawyer Allen M. Ressler said a jury might find she participated, or at least ignored the obvious, so she would be making a so-called Alford plea, not admitting any wrong doing.
“I don’t think we concurred she knowingly committed this,” Ressler said.
Judge James Lawler asked her if she agreed with what her lawyer said.
“Looking at the probable cause statement, do you agree that if that evidence were presented to a jury or a judge, and believed, it is highly likely you would be found guilty?” Lawler asked.
“Yes,” Lorrine D. Birdwell replied.
“And, you’re pleading guilty to take advantage of a plea offer?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
The offense to which she pleaded guilty has a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The couple is now scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 6.
For background, read “Birdwell theft case deal includes incarceration plus deadline to pay back funds” from Tuesday May 13, 2014, here