TRENTON — A seasoned swindler whose own attorney called her actions a “global scheme” took more than money from a Trenton councilwoman.
Former campaign treasurer Yolanda Torres, 44, of Hamilton, robbed the public’s trust and made people question North Ward councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson’s “good name,” Mercer County assistant prosecutor Rachel Cook said.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Lydon on Friday sentenced Torres to three years of hard time for third-degree theft by deception and ordered her to repay more than $50,000 in restitution to the councilwoman.
Caldwell-Wilson told The Trentonian in an interview she expended another $12,000 hiring an auditor and lawyers to reconcile ELEC reports and straighten out her financial affairs to restore her good name after her onetime friend Torres robbed her blind.
The councilwoman was not involved in Torres’ crimes and doesn’t expect to get a penny back of the money that was pilfered from her.
The councilwoman was lulled into trusting the two-timing felon and became close with her family, even attending her son’s military graduation ceremony in Virginia.
“She was a good friend, but she almost destroyed my life. It affected my health. It was crazy,” Caldwell-Wilson said.
Part of the stolen funds were taken from Caldwell-Wilson’s nonprofit animal advocacy group, Lady Margaret Animal Foundation, Cook said.
The foundation fund, set aside to help sick and abandoned animals, was depleted leading to tragic outcomes, Cook said.
“Seniors lost their companions as a result of Ms. Torres’ acts,” Cook said at sentencing. “Animals that needed surgery. Animals that needed to be adopted. Animals that were put down because there were no funds to save them. Restitution cannot pay for that.”
Torres, who has prior felony theft-related convictions in New Jersey, has also pleaded guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a former Morrisville employer, according to a spokesman for Bucks County DA Matthew Weintraub.
She was first arrested and charged with multiple counts last year after Bucks County authorities said she ripped of a Roy Shu, the owner of Shu Dental Laboratory. She’s charged with multiple criminal counts for allegedly stealing more than $430,000.
Mercer County prosecutors also charged Torres with theft-related counts by criminal complaint Oct. 24, 2018, for allegedly raiding between $500 and $75,000 from the councilwoman’s campaign coffers and doctoring ELEC reports.
A detective wrote Torres had intentionally included “false information misrepresenting the expenditures of the election account” on ELEC reports intended to “deceive” election officials.
An indictment, handed up Feb. 26, charged Torres, of Hamilton, with two third-degree counts of theft by deception, two third-degree counts of tampering with public records and two counts of fourth-degree forgery.
Some of those stolen funds were funneled and money laundered through Caldwell-Wilson’s campaign coffers as part of a “global scheme,” said Joseph Compitello, Torres attorney.
Cook said at Friday’s sentencing the figure in Bucks County was closer to $650K, adding the pilfering scheme had a “butterfly effect” on others.
“Together from those pools of money, Ms. Torres enriched only herself. That money is gone, and there’s nothing to show for it,” Cook said, without elaborating on how the money was spent.
Compitello said his client immediately fessed up to her crimes when the authorities came knocking.
“She admitted to what she did. She’s taken ownership,” he said. “She will learn her lesson, and it’s unlikely to reoccur.”
Torres had few words in her own defense.
“I apologize. Sorry,” she said.
Judge Lydon said Torres was given a chance before on probation in another theft case from 2010. She has municipal court-level convictions.
Torres is also waiting to learn her fate in the Bucks County case.
She pleaded guilty in June to dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception, identity theft, unlawful use of a computer and computer trespass, all felonies.
“She could be a movie star,” Shu told The Trentonian in a previous interview. “She acted like she was stupid. Everyone thought she wasn’t as smart. In the meantime, she was stealing left and right.”
Torres is set for sentencing Nov. 25 before President Judge Wallace H. Bateman Jr., Bucks County DA spokesman James O’Malley said.
Torres apparently didn’t learn her lesson last time, making Judge Lydon believe she’s certain to reoffend given her wake of destruction from Trenton to Morrisville.
In all, Caldwell-Wilson said she believes about $53,000 was purged from her re-election fund and animal advocacy nonprofit.
The councilwoman said she is going after Wells Fargo to try to recoup $10,000 pilfered from the Lady Margaret’s coffers because Torres wasn’t an authorized signatory.
Caldwell-Wilson attended Torres’ sentencing but was too emotional to speak. The judge was provided a letter Caldwell-Wilson wrote about how her former friend’s crimes impacted her life.
In it, the councilwoman wrote she never again wanted to hear from Torres following the “never-ending nightmare.”
The North ward leader said the stress from being victimized landed her in the emergency room suffering chest pains. She also lost an “abnormal” amount of weight.
“Being an elected official, your actions have caused me the utmost embarrassment and almost ruined my reputation and trust I have built over many years,” Caldwell-Wilson said. “Many of my relationships with constituents may never be the same, and your actions made it difficult, nearly impossible, for me to be out in public. … I feel sorry for your family, but I do not feel sorry for you. What you have done cannot be erased.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Torres received four years in prison. That information was provided by the councilwoman. It has been updated to reflect Torres received three years.