Local embezzlement case wraps up second week
Proceedings continued this week in the case of People v. Batterham. One of the first trials to be conducted in the new Mono County Superior Court building began Nov. 2, with the People, represented by Mono Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Ibrahim, laying out its embezzlement case against Crowley Lake resident Sara Batterham, who is representing herself in the matter. Travel Judge John T. Ball is presiding.
The Sheet decided to begin covering the trial this week based upon the eyebrow-raising report that the defendant had called one of the plaintiffs a “terrorist.” (More on that later.)
How it All Began
A Mammoth Lakes Police Department report said Batterham (also known by her maiden name of Weismiller), was arrested on Aug. 30, 2007, along with her husband, Colin Batterham. At the time, the Batterhams were employed by Surat Singh, owner-operator of the Mammoth Econo Lodge; Sara (then 30) as a manager, and Colin in hotel maintenance. The arrests followed what was called “a lengthy investigation” conducted by Detective Doug Hornbeck.
Charges were filed against the two in early 2008, alleging that the Batterhams created a fictitious business account under Singh’s name, and routed certain transactions to a second account registered to the Batterhams, according to a previous statement made by Deputy District Attorney Kyle Graham.
According to Ibrahim, Singh earlier testified in the matter that suspicions arose when the two failed to show up for work on July 27, 2007, after only about one month on the job. Apparently, at about that same time, Singh intercepted a piece of mail that turned up in the Econo Lodge’s Post Office box with papers related to a credit card transfer account with Innovative Merchant Solutions, an account Singh maintains he never opened. That account was in turn linked to an account at a local bank reportedly registered to Colin Batterham.
Monday’s proceedings revealed the pitfalls of self-representation. Batterham, now having her chance to call witnesses, clearly had trouble negotiating the finer aspects of the trial process. She had very limited success entering evidence, with most facing objections on grounds of hearsay and relevance. Also, not having a formal legal team in place meant not being able to track subpoenaed witnesses, two of whom did not arrive as expected, forcing an early adjournment for the day.
The following day, Batterham fared somewhat better, calling independent Forensic Document Examiner Emily Will. Batterham had Will list her experience and credentials, and entered a motion to have Will declared an “expert witness,” which was granted. (According to the court, expert witnesses are allowed to express opinions and use hypothetical examples to answer questions.)
Will was brought in to present her findings on a disputed contract, which allegedly says that Singh gave Batterham 10% of all gross receipts. Batterham also wanted Will to rebut any perception that Singh’s signature was somehow manufactured.
Her contention being that an extra account was opened to facilitate the transfer of the 10% – and that Singh knew about and was okay with this new account.
Will said the signature she examined was authentic, and generated by a pen as opposed to printed. As to whether the so-called “10% line” was added after Singh signed the contract, Will testified that, given the authenticity of the signatures and how perfect the line spacing would have needed to be, if the line was added, it wasn’t inserted after the signatures were made.
Whether it was Singh’s actual handwriting, however, was another matter. During cross-examination, Ibrahim challenged Will’s level of experience, particularly whether she’d done any work for the Department of Justice, or the U.S. Secret Service, which Will said she hadn’t. She did testify that she’d worked on individual state cases. She has also never been called to testify for the prosecution, though Will maintained that prosecutors typically bring in their own specialists for their purposes.
Ibrahim then posited that forensic document examination is an “opinion-based profession.” Will agreed that, “at some point you have to bring the examiner’s judgment into it.” Ibrahim suggested that forgers practice, some to the point where you can’t tell the difference from the original. Will acknowledged that there are indeed persons who have the ability to fool a document examiner. Ibrahim asked whether the profession has any formal guidelines that members must adhere to, and Will said there were none.
Will further said she approached the signature analysis from a “point of total neutrality” as to whether Singh signed the document in question. Ibrahim, however, made the point that Will never saw Singh sign any documents or handwriting samples used in her analysis.
The validity of the contract/employee agreement is one of the key turning points of the trial. There are at least two versions of the contract, one with the 10% clause, another without. On the stand, Will testified during comparisons of the two versions (Peoples exhibits 2 and 7) that the documents aren’t the same in terms of content, but that the signatures appear to be copies of each other, with Peoples 2 being the apparent source for those on Peoples 7.
A subsequent examination of Defense Exhibit JJ, however, appeared to reveal yet another set of signatures on two other versions of the contract, this one apparently the source for Peoples 8 and 20. With four versions now floating around, Ibrahim asked if the signatures could be grafted or transposed onto other versions. “You can produce 1,000 documents of suspicious or ill repute,” Will replied, “but that’s not relevant to the nature of the document I was given to examine.”
Batterham contends that Singh signed both an earlier contract without the 10% clause, and later signed one with the 10% clause, but Ibrahim likened the multiple versions of the document
to “practice documents for forgery.”
Wednesday started off with the testimony of Secret Service Agent Brian Korbs, who specializes in forensic investigations into financial and computer crimes. Korbs said he was contacted by DA Graham’s office to conduct computer analysis on a computer from the Econo Lodge (owned by Singh), as well as a Gateway laptop and a Sony Vaio laptop.
Korbs testified that he found no employment contract on any of the data he searched. During cross-examination, however, he allowed that the search parameters he uses are fairly specific and can be limited, and that simply because he didn’t find any such document, “doesn’t mean it never existed or doesn’t currently exist.”
The afternoon featured the first appearance on the stand by Batterham’s husband, Colin. In 2006, according to background questioning, the two moved to South Lake Tahoe, where they started a property management business and Sara also taught in school. They later married and moved to Mammoth Lakes, which led them to the job openings at the Econo Lodge. According to Colin, he and Sara signed an employment agreement on May 7, 2007, and began training sometime around the middle of that month, with their formal start date being May 31, 2007, as written in the agreement.
Colin went on to assert that low pay and a 24-hour, 7-day work schedule led him to confront Singh about the original agreement and claimed that Singh required three copies of the new deal. Mr. Batterham said those had been generated from the computer individually, since the copy machine was broken at the time.
He then alleged that Singh advised him to open a bank account into which he would deposit the 10% of gross sales amounts. Colin added that he and Sara left when they noticed “questionable people” frequenting the hotel, and alleged “illegal activity,” though what sort of activity wasn’t specified.
During questioning, Sara was visibly frustrated, constantly running into objections of hearsay and leading the witness, among others. She made several attempts to address her husband’s character in a series of badly worded questions on everything from his clean driving record to adopting foster dogs. Questions about any motivation Colin might have had were disallowed. Judge Ball then explained to the jury that having a motive might be a consideration in their deliberations, but not required to be proven by the People, adding that it isn’t and cannot be an element of a crime, contrary to how it’s portrayed on TV and in the movies.
One question Judge Ball did allow: has he ever been convicted of a felony? Colin testified he had not. Mr. Batterham is awaiting trial, however, on charges of embezzlement and conspiracy to commit embezzlement.
During cross-examination, Batterham said he was testifying against the advice of his attorney, whom he said was Randall Gephart. Batterham said that of the three copies asked for by Singh, he couldn’t account for why only one, Defense Exhibit JJ, was the only one found for the trial. Ibrahim went on to further emphasize the various signature differences, as well as challenged a signature on a bank check that appeared to be Sara’s. The account was only in Colin’s name, however, he countered that the handwriting was his and that Sara gave him permission to use her signature.
Ibrahim also went over bank statements showing numerous deposits made during the period from July 7-25, when Singh was in India. Mr. Batterham claimed that Singh made the deposits while he was there. “They have computers in India,” he stated.
The Peoples’ counsel also queried him as to whether the almost $11,000 was actually 10% of the gross receipts, or perhaps more. Mr. Batterham deflected the question, pointing to Singh and his wife, Sara, who he said were the two who kept the hotel’s ledger.
Research also revealed that the Batterhams had filed two complaints with California Ninth Circuit Court, claiming they were being unfairly prosecuted, and that the Attorney General’s office had allegedly reviewed that case and found “no merit” for it. In April 2011, Sara Batterham filed a complaint against “Mono County Law Enforcement, et al,” including Ibrahim, Deputy DA Kyle Graham, Det. Hornbeck, Investigator Frank Smith, and Mono District Attorney George Booth, alleging civil rights violations. In the second complaint, filed in July 2011, Colin and Sara alleged breach of contract against Khalsa Resorts (holding company for the Econo Lodge) and Surat Singh.
But it’s likely none of the proceedings to date matched the level of fireworks that were set off when Batterham called herself as a witness on Thursday morning. Her testimony, awkward under even the best of circumstances, was riddled with objections on grounds of being argumentative. Judge Ball chastised a flustered Batterham repeatedly for making arguments that were not appropriate during testimony, and could be made during final arguments.
She did manage to get out a barrage of statements, maintaining that she didn’t need the money, and related the upshot of conversation with Singh that allegedly took place on May 31, 2007. At that point, she said that due to a light snow year, rather than the 5-day, 12-hour and weekends off schedule she expected, it would be more beneficial for Singh to keep the Batterhams on a 24-hour, 7-day schedule, but with the caveat that each get 5% of the gross sales as a bonus.
According to Batterham, a representative from Innovative Merchant Solutions, an Intuit company, visited the hotel and said they could offer competitive rates for the service, as well as features that included being able to import the data into QuickBooks (also an Intuit product) and the ability of Singh to access the data from India. She further claimed that the IMS rep trained them on the system and charged Singh $195, a bill which Singh allegedly never paid. Upon Singh’s return, she said the books were reconciled, and that soon after she and her husband left. A week or so after that, she learned that Singh accused them of stealing.
She also alleged that the additional copies of the various versions of the contract mysteriously “turned up” following searches by the MLPD and other agencies. And also disputed an arrest that she said was supposedly for sending a subpoena on the letterhead of an Oklahoma-based criminal defense attorney, Christian Zeeman, who she said had been hired by her mother with a $25,000 retainer that came from a trust fund.
During Ibrahim’s cross-examination, Batterham’s resume was reviewed, particularly the parts of which addressed her knowledge of the Windows computer operating system, and web design (she had a side business building web sites) and Internet usage.
She also was questioned, quite pointedly, as to her feelings about Mr. Singh. Batterham testified that she doesn’t like him, doesn’t think he likes Americans or the United States. Referencing statements made in her opening remarks, Ibrahim asked if she thought he was a terrorist, a “Muslim who wears a turban,” to which she responded, “At the time, absolutely.”
Batterham made mention of a Middle Eastern man holding an Iranian passport she claimed to have been at the hotel, who asked questions about California dams and bridges. She also talked about receiving numerous faxes and phone calls from people about prescription drug refills, activity she thought could be illegal and which she found uncomfortable.
A last witness prior to adjourning for the Veterans Day weekend — an audio expert Batterham had hoped to question about what she claimed was tampering with audio recordings of interview with her and her husband — was disallowed, since the recordings had never been entered into evidence and were therefore inadmissible.
Closing arguments are expected to begin Monday, with the case going to the jury on Tuesday.