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Bookkeeper whose thefts ruined two New London, Minnesota, businesses to serve prison time

A plea from Melanie Daniel, 51, to avoid prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, was rejected. The court sentenced her to the Commissioner of Corrections for 49 months, with a minimum of 32 2/3 months in prison.

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Melanie Beth Daniel

WILLMAR — A bookkeeper accused of thefts that caused two businesses owned by New London brothers to fail, with the loss of 10 jobs, is headed to prison.

District Judge Jennifer Fischer during sentencing Monday rejected a plea from Melanie Beth Daniel, 51, of Moundsview , Minnesota, to avoid prison time. The judge committed Daniel to the Commissioners of Corrections at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee for 49 months on the fifth of five counts of theft by swindle. Daniel had pleaded guilty to the five charges earlier this month in Kandiyohi County District Court as part of a plea agreement. The judge ordered that Daniel serve a minimum of 32 ⅔ months in prison, with the remainder on supervised release.

The judge also ordered Daniel to serve prison terms of 26 and 30 months on two of the other theft by swindle charges, and stayed sentences of 21 months and 27 months on two others. Fischer allowed the sentences to be served concurrently, or all at the same time.

The order also requires that Daniel reimburse the victims $386,212.

She was initially charged with 35 counts of theft by swindle and 15 theft charges for taking money from Lake Country Crane and Wachtler Inc., both of New London, spanning a period from 2014 to 2019.

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“You stole. You are a felon. You are going to prison,” Judge Fischer told the defendant shortly before issuing the sentence.

Daniel told the families of brothers Cheyne Wachtler and Nathan Wachtler and their father, Paul, that she was “very sorry and remorseful.”

She asked the judge to allow her to serve probation and complete a graduate program to become a counselor to help others, care for her children and to earn money to make reimbursements to the victims.

Daniel told the court that she had stolen the money in an attempt to keep her marriage after learning of her husband’s same-sex attraction and infidelity. She said she had been sexually abused as a teenager and experienced abandonment by her parents' divorce when she was young.

Her fear of abandonment “caused me to desperately cling to a marriage that was unraveling,” Daniel told the court.

Paul Wachtler, who started the company in 1964 that his sons took over, said their accountant estimates that Daniel fraudulently spent somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000.

In victim impact statements, Cheyne Wachtler and Nathan Wachtler described how they each began working for $1,200 a week and had to pare their wages to $500, then $200, and eventually nothing as the companies failed. They spoke to the pain of losing employees who were truly friends.

Cheyne said employees left and others had to be let go as the financial situation deteriorated.

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“The last three years have been hard,” said Cheyne. “I’m at fault because I’m the boss. I’m responsible for the guys not being employed because there wasn’t enough money to keep them employed,” he told the court.

Emily Wachtler, Nathan’s wife, told the court in her statement that the two brothers and their employees worked long hours in snow and wind and risked their lives climbing heights while Daniel stole from them.

Daniel had been hired in 2012 by Paul Wachtler when the company’s accountant urged him to get someone with computer skills to manage the books of the growing business. As Daniel was a minister’s wife, “we had full faith and confidence” in her, Paul Wachtler told the court.

Daniel spent funds on everything from her child’s college tuition and family bills to airline tickets, trips overseas, concerts and entertainment venues.

“As I was creating my spreadsheet off of these credit card accounts, it made me physically ill,” Assistant Kandiyohi County Attorney Suelana Kinney told the court.

The prosecutor said she reviewed a Capital One credit card for a 54-month period and tallied total purchases of $523,627.85, with the Wachtlers paying $489,075.93 of the amount. Kinney cited expenditures on the card for everything from the Wisconsin Dells and Europe Rail to Ticketmaster, Amazon, Universal Studio Vacations and Broadway Across America.

“This is not just theft. This is someone living the life of luxury and draining these people’s businesses,” said Kinney.

Realistically, she said, the families will never get full restitution for the losses.

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“And no way they are going to get the last few years of their lives back the way they were. They will never be made whole again,” Kinney said in asking for a prison sentence.

“This large amount of theft is no longer considered property crimes,” Judge Fischer told Daniel. “You have devastated two families.”

The judge said Daniel had used her place of privilege to commit the crimes and rejected the defendant’s claims to have taken responsibility for her actions.

“You didn’t even plead guilty to all the things you were accused of. You have not taken full responsibility, but you will,” Fischer said before pronouncing the sentences.

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