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'More Than a Rap Sheet': Convicted Maine Embezzler Struggles to Start Over
01/21/2013  

Over the past decade, an increasing number of people in Maine have been arrested for embezzling - charged with stealing money from towns, banks, libraries, companies and organizations, sometimes for years before getting caught. In 2008, Becky McGilp made headlines when she was arrested for stealing more than half-a-million dollars from her employer, Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport, over the course of six years. McGilp has since been released from prison. She recently spoke to Kelsey Padgett, a student at Portland's SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, for this profile.

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'More Than a Rap Sheet': Convicted Maine Embezzle Listen
 Duration:
7:5

SALT 1


"The truth about me is I am not perfect. But I want to be. I value family, home and relationships. I have been a good citizen and I want to be again."

What you're hearing is Becky McGilp (above), reading her poem, "The Truth About Me."

(McGilp reads): "The truth about me is I am a good person and I care about others."

I first saw her Becky reading this poem at an art exhibit in Portland, Maine. She has short, white hair, a meek frame, and overall humble aura. She looks just like my favorite aunt - the one that always has butterscotch candies.

(McGilp reads): "The truth about me is I carry guilt, I carry pride."

Becky carries guilt, because she is guilty. She's a felon.

(McGilp reads): "I carry anger and hurt, I carry love, I carry devotion, and most of the time, I will want to carry you."

The exhibit I was at was called, "More Than a Rap Sheet" - a collection of photographs and poems written by women in jail.

"Accepting the label felon was really - hard," Becky says. "There's a lot of other things that I am besides that. I am a Christian, I am a mom, a wife, a homemaker, a leader. I'm a knitter, I'm a quilter, I'm a woman who struggles with depression, I'm a woman does too much. I'm lots of things."

How in the world did this mild-mannered, God-fearing mother of two teenage boys ever become a felon?

"We went through some financial struggles. We lost a home," she says. "As I had fears about not being able to pay the bills, whether that was rational or not, I at some point made a decision to take a check from one of my clients."

That's where it all started. This crime that felt like a one-time thing for Becky became a habit, and then it became way of life. Over the next six years, Becky stole over a half-a-million dollars from Royal River Natural Foods, where she was a bookkeeper. This wasn't some big-box store where you might not feel guilty if they forget to ring up your ChapStick - this is the kind of tiny, local organic place where you can get fresh-juiced kale and the cashier is your neighbor's teenage kid.

But Becky kept taking checks. "I just wanted everything to be like it should be, or like I felt it should be," she says. "One of the children or my husband would say, 'Oh we should go do this,' or 'Can I have a new hockey stick?' And I would be angry, because I knew what that meant to me."

But a couple of hockey sticks over the years can't possibly add up to over a half-a-million dollars.

"I mean, in the beginning it was a few hundred, at the end it was thousands a month - $6,000, $7,000, $8,000."

Kelsey Padgett: "Where was all of that going?"

Becky McGilp: "This is so shameful: I had a thing for longerborough baskets. We took a trip to Scotland. We were changing cars every couple of years, home improvements. It was craziness."

Even with these things that seemed crazy to Becky, no one noticed. The McGilps weren't living an outwardly extravagant life. Not even Becky's husband, John, saw what was happening. "Sometimes you can be so close to a problem, you can't see it," he says.

Becky McGilp: "Do you want me to read this?"

Kelsey Padgett: "I'd love it if you would."

(McGilp reads): "The truth about me is, I am more than an embezzler, I'm a good mother, although not always the best mother I can be. Sometimes I'm too tired to go on."

Six years into habitually stealing, Becky was caught. One afternoon she got a letter in the mail saying that her bank accounts were frozen. She knew exactly what that meant.

"My thoughts were racing, but I also felt really clear, like what I had to do. I took the dogs for a walk. Cleaned up the house as best I could. Then I took all of my anti-anxiety and other medications, and then I laid down on the couch and went to sleep. They were waking me up in the hospital 10 or 11 hours later, and I remember a nurse asking me, 'Do you still want to die?' and I said, 'Yes I do.'"

(McGilp reads): "The truth about me is I am a good person, I care about others. I hope that no other woman ever feels the way I used to feel about myself"

Becky says one of the reasons she attempted suicide is that she didn't want people in her life to have to face her consequences. Even after that, she thought it would easier if people just walked away, "including my husband. I said to him, 'I think you should pack up the kids and just leave me here.'"

"I didn't even consider it," John says. "If this is the easy way out, I'm sorry - it's just not me."

Becky pled guilty at her hearing. Royal River Natural Foods, her victim, asked for 10 years. She was eventually sentenced to two. Becky gave John and her sons one last hug and was taken away. Her time in jail started that day.

"The constant noise, and lighting, the lack of privacy and the institutional meals - it really erodes at your sense of self, and your sense of what the world really is like," she says.

A few months into Becky's term she met Jenny Stasio. Jenny works for Family Crisis Services and started the "Truth About Me" poetry program in Maine's jails.

"My role there was just about support," Stasio says. "Prison is a silencing experience for women, and so this gave them a chance to really say who they were."

"She was the first person that I met that had that air about her, that had an understanding that we were still people, we were still everybody we used to be," Becky says.

(McGilp reads): "The truth about me is I am not perfect, but I want to be. I value family, home, and relationships. I have always been a good citizen and want to be again."

Inside of prison, writing poetry helped Becky realize that she really was more than a rap sheet. But the world on the outside was less forgiving.

Becky has to pay 50 percent of her income a week in restitution or she'll face going back to jail. On top of that, getting any job as a felon is difficult. She had many demeaning odd jobs and was consistently being turned down for professional positions.

But eventually she got a great opportunity. Jenny hired her to work as an advocate at Family Crisis Services' women's shelter.

"It was just such a huge blessing on so many fronts - financially, but also emotionally," Becky says. "Someone finally had confidence in me to be a professional again - which was huge."

At the shelter Becky helps other women accept themselves. Through this work and speaking at "More Than a Rap Sheet" events, she is continuing the process of moving beyond her mistakes.

"Partly because I don't ever want to bear the burden of having to be perfect again," she says. "But I don't want anybody else to ever bear it either - in this sense of life-long shame of never being able to measure up to what you think you should be."

So that's Becky - a woman torn between who she knows she is, and what she's done. Trying to pull it all back together.

(McGilp reads): "The truth about me is, my yesterdays have passed, my tomorrows are on their way but not yet here, my today is here and beautiful, and I'm ready to move on from here. Pease let me go."

Learn more about the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies.

Photo by Kelsey Padgett.


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