Betsy Jo Yates covered her face with her hands.
“Oh my God,” she said, sobbing as a judge announced she had been found guilty of embezzling $34,000 from the Georgia State Fair.
She turned around to face her parents and mouthed, “I didn’t do it.”
Yates had exuded confidence Wednesday as she testified, denying that she’d taken anything she wasn’t entitled to.
She shook her head and mouthed “no” during prosecutor Myra Tisdale’s closing argument to jurors Thursday.
Jurors deliberated about 90 minutes before finding the former Georgia State Fair director guilty of fiduciary theft. The trial began Monday in Bibb County Superior Court.
Chief Superior Court Judge Tripp Self sentenced her to seven years in prison and eight years on probation. A hearing will be held later to determine how much restitution she will be required to pay.
During the 43-year-old’s sentencing hearing, Tisdale said Yates pleaded guilty to forgery in 1992 and was sentenced as a first offender.
The Georgia State Fair was a part of Macon history for many years before it moved out of town, the prosecutor said.
“It didn’t help to have that amount of money stolen.”
Yates and her parents pleaded for leniency before the judge announced her sentence.
Speaking softly, Yates told Self, “My children are my life.”
Her mother said she’d do her best to raise Yates’ young daughter, but she said the girl is “not going to understand where her mommy is.”
Yates was hired in 2008 and performed a variety of duties -- including writing checks and bookkeeping for the fair -- until she was put on administrative leave in 2010.
An audit uncovered irregularities that spurred an investigation by the Bibb County District Attorney’s Office.
In his closing argument Thursday morning, Yates’ attorney said the fair’s board members needed a scapegoat after the fair saw years of declining attendance and revenue.
“No one wanted the fair to fail on their watch,” Melvin Raines said.
Raines noted increases in in-kind donations -- from $7,950 in 2007, before Yates started work, to $162,536 in 2010 when she was dismissed.
“It shows you Ms. Yates was out working crazily for this event,” he said.
Raines described his client as a single mother who was trying “to breathe life into a dying corpse.”
No one at board meetings questioned her actions or the expenses, he said.
Yates has maintained that the fair actually owes her about $30,000 in commissions she earned by securing sponsorships.
Yates didn’t have experience in the computerized accounting system the fair used, and she did the best she could, Raines said.
“I will concede that the bookkeeping was bizarre,” he said. “The accounting was crazy-looking.”
Raines said dates and payee names were changed in the system for checks other than just those Yates wrote to herself.
Tisdale reminded jurors of Yates’ Wednesday testimony that one suspicious check was used to pay someone to train her on the computerized accounting system in 2009.
She said Yates used a pen and computer instead of a gun and a mask to rob the fair.
“There is no grand conspiracy here,” she said.
Yates’ personal banking statements showed she often ran low on funds before she deposited checks drawn on the fair’s account, Tisdale said.
Yates wants people to think a woman who can’t keep a balance in her bank account was “bankrolling the Georgia State Fair,” Tisdale told the jurors.
During her testimony Wednesday, Yates said she often used her personal money to buy items for the fair, then deposited checks written to herself to cover the purchases. She said she also cashed checks written to herself to get cash to pay businesses that wouldn’t take a check.
Tisdale questioned why Yates didn’t have receipts for the purchases she said she made using her own money.