Tyler Employee Arrested, Accused of Stealing Half a Million Dollars

More than half a million dollars was stolen from the city of Tyler and a trusted employee has been charged with the theft. 40-year-old Denise Vernae Owens was a Senior Deputy Court Clerk at Tyler's Municipal Court.

Now she's charged with felony theft. She turned herself in Thursday morning and has already been released from the Smith County Jail on $75,000 bond. Denise Owens spent 20 years working for the city of Tyler, trusted and loved.

"It was kind of a shock when we realized it was this person involved in this kind of theft," says Bob Turner, Tyler City Manager. But now fellow employees say that trust was tarnished, the day they realized Owens was allegedly taking money from Tyler's municipal court.

"I have worked with her for 11 years she was the most loved person in the court," says Cam McCabe. "She's a senior deputy clerk, the highest paid clerk in the court. It was devastating to me and all my staff."

The city says Owens helped herself to a half a million of their dollars, illegally starting back in 1999 until this year.

"Just as a regular part of the business a question came up about someone wanting me to verify balance," says McCabe.

Cam McCabe, Tyler's Municipal Court Coordinator, went to Owens for some jail paperwork after a caller said she paid her fine, but records showed she served out jail time.

"Because I knew her so long, her reaction she got so tense over such simple questions it just seemed a little odd," says McCabe.

McCabe was suspicious. Finally she got her hands on the list. The city manager Bob Turner says Owens was taking fines, but listing the people as still in jail then keeping the money herself.

"She was both the check and the balance of this process," says Bob Turner. "She had the availability to go deposit the funds, and the monies at the end of the day. Obviously that amount was not getting deposited, she was presumably taking the money to the house."

Many employees were never suspicious of expensive items Owens had even though she made just $26,255 a year plus benefits totaling $35,500. They say Owens gambled a lot; and won a lot.

"I have seen her... she has brought in checks from the casino where she had won the money... like the $25,000," says McCabe.

Now the mayor says the city is looking into every department that takes in money to make sure the right checks and balances are in place. That's why the city has hired Robert Bailes and Company. Seeber says they have a certified fraud investigator on staff that will look at the municipal court's current checks and balances.

"...One of the things this outside firm is going to determine is exactly how can we prevent this from happening again," says mayor Joey Seeber. "What were the holes in the system that allowed it to happen, and then again make sure all of our procedures were being followed."

Seeber wanted to reiterate that the city will not tolerate employees stealing.

Dana Dixon Reporting