Financial crimes tend to take a back seat to the sexier guns-and-robbers stuff that dominate headlines.
But the wreckage of financial crimes can be just as devastating, ruining business and lives.
In 2015, Anaheim PD Det. John Azze, a veteran financial crimes investigator and the agency’s sole detective assigned to major fraud, had two major cases result in arrests — the culmination of painstakingly meticulous work that had him poring over boxes of financial documents to account for every penny of allegedly ill-gotten gains.
“These types of cases are frowned upon by most police officers because they’re not ‘exciting’ and don’t result in immediate arrests,” says Azze, an 18-year APD veteran. “Nevertheless, they’re still very important cases, and I enjoy working on them.
“Let’s just say I have a knack for this.”
In November 2015, Azze flew to Houston to arrest a female bookkeeper suspected of fleecing $1 million from her employer, a church. She recently pleaded guilty and agreed to a 10-year prison sentence.
And in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve 2015, Azze knocked on the door of a suspect who, from 2008 to 2012, is accused of embezzling $1 million from her employer, Cal-Tape & Label.
The suspect allegedly wrote more than 400 company checks, from $200 to thousands of dollars, to 14 people who were listed as being on Cal-Tape & Label’s payroll but who never worked for the company.
The suspect is accused of showering the Benjamins on friends and family who would give her a cut of the loot.
In addition to the suspect, who as office manager handled many aspects of Cal-Tape & Label’s business and had the full trust of the owner (as is typical in such fraud cases), eight other people accused of being in on the scam were arrested.
Two still are in the wind.
Azze, 51, has been an APD cop for 18 years. He transferred to Anaheim from the Montebello PD, where he worked for eight years.
For 12 years at the APD, Azze has been working financial crimes and for the last four years he has focused on major fraud — cases with a minimum loss of $100,000.
Azze spent a few years on the Cal-Tape & Label investigation (the APD first got the case in late 2012) while juggling about 20 other cases. That long process, he says, is one of the reasons he loves his job.
“Many years later when (the suspects) think they’ve gotten away with the deed,” Azze says, “I come knocking on their door and tell them they’re going to jail. They’ve gone on with their lives and think they’re in the clear. When I show up, they have no idea I’ve been putting together a case against them.
“That feeling, for me, is amazing.”
The owner of Cal-Tape & Label discovered something was wrong while working on his 2012 business taxes. He noticed one document that showed an unusually high amount of office expenses — more than triple the average.
He asked his office manager, a 10-year employee, about the unusual expenses.
“I don’t know,” was her response, according to Azze,
She then excused herself, saying she didn’t feel well.
She left work and never came back, Azze said.
“That obviously caught his attention,” the detective deadpanned. “He had complete trust in her.”
The business owner looked over bank statements and saw checks made out to people he didn’t know and vendors he never hired.
He did an audit, and in late 2012 went to the APD.
The suspect, who had no prior criminal history, was a woman in her early 30s with a couple of children who also was living with other relatives.
She wasn’t living a lavish lifestyle, Azze said — just using the money she stole from her employer to support relatives and friends, and to cover some expenses, like dining out.
Crooks like the one who fleeced Cal-Tape & Label typically start off embezzling small amounts of money and when their crime goes unnoticed they move on to larger amounts, Azze said.
Azze advised small business owners to have a system of checks and balances and never have one person in charge of several aspects of the business. He urged business owners to make it part of normal operations to check on employees and their work — even if they are close friends or relatives.
The Cal-Tape & Label suspect faces charges of grand theft and a maximum of 30 years in prison, but Azze’s guess is she will be sentenced to five to 10 years if convicted — which translates to 2 ½ to five years of actual time served if she is a model prisoner.
Azze made a point of arresting the Cal-Tape & Label suspect on Christmas Eve.
Most white-collar criminal sentences are relatively light compared to violent crimes, he said, so arresting a suspect around a long holiday weekend typically means they will spend a few days behind bars before they make a court appearance.
“I’m not trying to be malicious,” Azze said, “but many of these criminals gets slaps on the wrist, and this is one of the ways I try to compensate for that.”