Lakeland Police on Wednesday arrested a 64-year-old Polk City woman, charging her with embezzling nearly $900,000 from a Lakeland plumbing company over seven years.
Lakeland Police investigators say Helen Marie Haffner was a secretary for Pro Plumbing on Gary Road for 16 years and wrote hundreds of checks to herself and to her husband, Thomas Haffner, between August 2015 and May 2022. According to an affidavit, she told police she has had a decades-long gambling addiction.
Business records on file with the state show Pro Plumbing, which also goes by The Original Pro Plumbing, is owned by David and Teresa Smith. Its website states it has been in business since 1985.
The police affidavit shows an owner, whose name was redacted in the report given to the media, discovered that the accounting books and profits appeared inaccurate when she looked at the bank statements in early May 2022. She asked her bank for statements dating back to January 2015 and found that Haffner had repeatedly forged her signature on checks to herself, Haffner’s husband – who has never worked for Pro Plumbing – and other business and financial institutions.
The owner explained that she had been at home, caring for a sick family member, while her husband was in the field working, leaving Haffner alone at the office with access to checks, data entry logs, and business credit card information.
An outside CPA firm then conducted an audit and found the massive theft, including at least 335 checks identified as stolen and forged, totaling $823,154. The owner told investigators that while Haffner had authority to write checks, she was never given permission to sign the checks.
In addition, Pro Plumbing’s credit card was used to transfer funds to a PayPal account labeled “PayPal Helen and Thomas” and to buy items from Amazon. The credit card thefts totaled $59,455.
Investigator Kenneth Jones brought Haffner to LPD headquarters and questioned her, but did not read her her Miranda Rights, explaining she did not have to answer his questions and could leave at any time. Haffner told Jones that she was hired for $10 an hour and claimed she was paid in cash, under the table. Eventually, her salary was increased to $15 an hour, and she earned $30,000 a year.
“The defendant admitted she has had a gambling problem since she was 21 years old and is currently in a program ‘Gambling Anonymous,’” Jones wrote in the affidavit. “The defendant was asked if she feels her gambling problem interfered with her job at Pro Plumbing, and she stated, ‘I want to that answer that question, but I don’t want to incriminate myself, so I prefer not to answer that question.’”
She was shown checks made out to her husband that she could not explain, saying she would not want to answer “without getting legal counsel.”
The affidavit shows that she also told Jones that when her gambling issue mounted, she began maxing out multiple credit cards, totaling $150,000 to $200,000. She said she used any winnings to gamble more.
Jones said Haffner told him, “When you’re a gambler, you don’t look at the loss. You just look at a way (to) make that, I would open this credit card so I can pay that other credit card payment.”
Shortly after Haffner was fired, Pro Plumbing’s owner received an email from her on September 10, 2022. Jones included the contents of the email in his affidavit.
“I assume you are going to press charges. I will never be able to pay anything to you when that happens,” Jones said Haffner wrote. “Stealing is stealing, whether from a person, company, or the IRS. I am sorry. I want to tell you why, not an excuse the truthful explanation. I have gambled over $250,000 online. My family knows nothing … I’ve caused enough pain and heartache. I now have to tell my family what I’ve done. My life is over.”
Haffner was booked into the Polk County Jail Wednesday, although it was not clear if she had posted bond by Thursday afternoon.
She is charged with criminal use of personal identification over $100,000, grand theft of $100,000 or more, false entries in books of a business entity, and scheme to defraud more than $50,000.
The Smiths did not respond to a phone message or email.
The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling has online resources for those who think they might have a problem or want to get help.
In a news release last month, FCCG Executive Director Jennifer Kruse said compulsive gambling has increased over the past few years, driven by a surge in the number of gambling websites and the negative effects of COVID and economic stress.
During the 2021-2022 fiscal year, “Our 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine responded to 1,589 contacts from Floridians seeking help for a gambling problem, which represents a staggering increase of 33% over the past three years and 26% in the past year,” she said in the release.
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