Keith A. Birdwell watches as the judge decides how much time to give his wife after his own sentencing this afternoon in Lewis County Superior Court.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – He clearly didn’t like it, but a judge agreed today to give Keith A. Birdwell one year of house arrest so he could work and pay back $1 million to a local bank.
Lewis County Superior Court Judge James Lawler was told by attorneys on the case that Security State Bank was on board with their deal that in exchange for a $100,000 downpayment on his restitution, the former used car dealer could avoid a lengthy prison term for his conviction on first-degree theft and three counts of felony unlawful issuance of a bank check.
Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Eric Eisenberg suggested the alternative of Birdwell sitting in prison and being ordered to pay back what he owes at $25 a month meant the bank would not likely get back much of its money.
Lawler called it a dilemma and said he didn’t want to victimize the Centralia-based financial institution again.
“The bank is making a business decision, they’re the ones that are the victims in this,” Lawler said. “It’s because of their participation, I’m going to follow the agreed recommendation, but I’m not happy about it.”
Birdwell, 48, and his wife were charged early last year with theft, for 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.
He pleaded guilty this past spring. The deals were tied together. Lorinne D. Birdwell made a so-called Alford plea – not admitting guilt – last month, to attempted second-degree theft, a gross misdemeanor.
Tacoma-based defense attorney Keith McFie had told the judge he just today got a check for half of the $100,000 and didn’t say from who, but said the lender conditioned the money on Keith Birdwell being able to work.
The benches behind the defense table were crowded with apparent supporters of the Toledo couple.
Keith Birdwell stood when he addressed the court and apologized.
He said he’d never experienced the economy change so quickly and the that the value of the vehicles he offered for sale dropped rapidly. Rather than humble himself and admit troubles, he took advantage of his bank’s trust, he said.
“I used money to pay off vehicles already sold, I wrote checks before I had money in the bank,” he said. “I take full responsibility.”
Keith Birdwell noted he also lost $400,000 of his own money he’d put into the business over the years.
His lawyer told the judge he thought his client believed in himself too much, and now knows he ought to have shut down operations sooner.
“He ended up with inventory he couldn’t sell at the value of the flooring loans,” McFie said. “That’s when the desperation set in.”
Court documents described the flooring loans from the bank as like a line of credit, allowing the Birdwells to stock their dealership while maintaining capital to acquire new vehicles; they promised in their contract to notify the bank and pay off each loan within 10 days of selling the vehicle.
The troubles came to a head in July 2012 when a bank employee discovered 21 vehicles were unaccounted for, according to court documents.
Keith Birdwell is currently working three jobs and the details of how he will pay off the rest of the $1,005,779.65, McFie said he didn’t know; except he had anticipated the court might put his client under some sort of supervision.
His specific sentence is 364 days on electronic home monitoring, which must begin by Aug. 26.
Because Keith Birdwell also pleaded to the aggravating factors that the actions were major economic offenses with a high degree of sophistication, Judge Lawler was free to impose a penalty of up to 10 years in prison if he chose.
Lawler warned Birdwell if he missed his deadline, he would sit in jail the entire 364 days.
Before the hour-long hearing was over, Lorinne Birdwell took her turn at the defense table.
Eisenberg told the judge he recommended the same 364 days, as it was his and the bank’s position she was equally culpable, although as far as restitution, she would be jointly liable for only about $840,000 of the total.
“My understanding of the evidence was Mrs. Birdwell was the person in charge to contact the bank and let them know when a vehicle was sold,” he said. “There are indications of occasions when she didn’t do that.”
Seattle defense attorney Allen M. Ressler argued that would be a mistake, as the state allowed her to plead to a far lesser charge and the notion she was an equal participant was without any support in the evidence. He asked for 30 days of house arrest.
Lawler said he agreed with some of his logic, and imposed 90 days on electronic home monitoring. But the rest of her 364 sentence was suspended, essentially hanging over her head for two years, he said.
“You heard everything I said to your husband,” Lawler told her. “The same things apply to you.”
The judge set a review date of Nov. 7, to make sure the attempt to pay restitution have not been blown off, and addressed Lorinne Birdwell once again.
“You’re the one who could be sitting back in jail,” he said.
For background, read “Centralia used car business theft defendants get a break” from Thursday July 3, 2014, here