Deb Anderson didn't begin her 27-year banking career as a thief.
She started as a teller at Pioneer Bank, the lender in her hometown of 3,300 on the outskirts of Sioux City. She won promotions, despite a lack of college or any formal training in banking or accounting. By 1991 she was named cashier - a respected and powerful job at most community banks.
"I had a tremendous amount of trust in her and her position," bank President Richard Aadland said.
But in 1996, 18 years into her career at Pioneer, Anderson developed a dark side — gambling. [Editor: Note the use of the term "dark side" used by the Des Moines Register writer to describe gambling. We are pointing this out so the reader can recognize a possible bias of the author.]
She started with bingo and switched to quarter slot machines, according to court testimony. Casinos to the north, in Sioux City, and to the south, outside of Sloan, proved so irresistible that she concocted a scheme that flew in the face of all her outward appearances of normalcy.
Using what she had learned about the bank's accounts, Anderson started rigging phony college loans. She then converted those loans to her personal use. Bank executives would take nearly a decade to catch up with her: By then she had looted $1,406,186.
Anderson also helped herself to $32,000 from the Community United Methodist Church, where she kept the books for many years.
Anderson, 49, pleaded guilty to one count of defrauding the bank in U.S. District Court in Sioux City. She was sentenced Friday to three years and five months in prison and five years of probation. Her sentencing happened to fall during National Problem Gambling Awareness Week.
She also was ordered to repay the bank all of the money that she stole, and she faces federal and state tax bills and penalties on $1.5 million of income that was not reported.
"I'm ashamed and remorseful and didn't set out to hurt anyone, but I hurt everyone," she testified Friday.
A gambling counselor testified that Anderson was making a successful recovery from her gambling addiction.
In documents asking the court for leniency, Jack Faith, Anderson's lawyer, wrote that in 1993 she developed anxiety attacks and depression, and later began gambling and stealing from Pioneer once her addiction spun out of control.
Lisa Pierce, director of the Central Iowa Gambling Treatment Program, said that for some people gambling can release chemicals in their bodies that fight the effects of depression.
In front of a slot machine or card table can be "the only place where they don't feel pain," Pierce said.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, acknowledged that depression can play a role in addictive gambling but said tying the two together can be like pairing the proverbial chicken and egg.
"Was it their gambling, or their depression" that caused their problems, he asked.
Whatever the trigger, by the time gamblers dip into the company till, they have a ready-made excuse for their behavior, said Kent Bausman, director of the criminology program at Maryville University in St. Louis.
"A lot of them say it was just a temporary loan," said Bausman. They have a family emergency, either real or imagined, which is their motivation to steal. And to rationalize their behavior, Bausman said, problem gamblers generally will tell themselves that they're going to pay back that money soon.
"But these thing just kind of take on a life of their own," he said.
As time wore on, Anderson's needs apparently grew. She was tapping the bogus college loans by using ATM withdrawals, but it limited withdrawals to $200 daily, so in September 2003 she manipulated it to spit out $1,500 every day, according to court documents.
If Anderson was hitting fat jackpots, she wasn't wearing the trappings. Her home in Sergeant Bluff is a modest, single-story home whose valued is assessed at $97,190. Her boss never reported seeing any shiny new cars or hearing of fancy vacations.
"They're just typical Sergeant Bluff residents, a family trying to make a living," Aadland said.
Her lawyer wrote in court documents: "She accumulated no assets from her addiction, only problems."
Pierce said gambling addicts eventually tire of hiding their problem. Embezzlers have to pull double duty to also cover their thievery.
In Anderson's case, she also had to look over her shoulder for federal or state bank regulators who dropped in on Pioneer every 15 months or so to inspect its books.
A spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. declined to comment on how Anderson eluded its detection for nearly a decade.
But Tom Gronstal, superintendent of the Iowa Division of Banking, said that bank examinations are not aimed as much at detecting fraud as ensuring that the bank is following regulations and is conducting its business in a sound manner.
"People are creative, and they come up with new ways to do things," Gronstal said. In this instance, Anderson picked on the rather ho-hum student loan account area, where huge sums of money are not typically involved.
Gronstal did not say whether Anderson's theft has prompted any direct corrective action by examiners or banks. But he said that regulators periodically meet to discuss situations they've encountered.
Aadland said a fellow worker actually tripped up Anderson. He didn't provide details, but Faith wrote that Anderson may have grown so exhausted from her misdeeds that she dropped her guard on purpose.
"Finally, she tired of hiding her conduct and ceased covering her tracks," Faith wrote.
That was Nov. 29, 2005, and Anderson was immediately dismissed.
A stunning twist occurred a few days later, on Dec. 8, when an Anderson relative showed up at Pioneer Bank. According to court documents, the relative cashed in a $40,000 certificate of deposit and asked that $32,504.69 be credited to the account of the Community United Methodist Church.
Deb Stowers, who became pastor of Community United in July 2006, said the church is still dealing with its victimization. Asked whether the congregation has put the matter behind it, she said "probably not yet. But with things like that, time is important."
U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett noted that he was moved by a letter from the church that said it would be willing to have Anderson return as treasurer.
At the sentencing, Bennett referred to Pioneer Bank's "very lax standards."
"They were apparently asleep at the watch," he said.
Aadland admitted that double checking on co-workers would have uncovered the problem, at least sooner. But he noted that because she was cashier, Anderson was the go-to person for anyone who spotted a problem.
Pioneer Bank likes to consider itself "family," Aadland said. One teller retired after 25 years, and the staff of 42 people often celebrates birthdays and other events.
"We spend more time here than with our families," Aadland said. Perhaps, he added, "that's why your guard is down."
Register correspondent Jolene Stevens contributed to this article.
Not the first
Deb Anderson is hardly the first employee to steal from a bank. In fact, a bank not too far from Sergeant Bluff was the victim of what was at the time the nation's biggest-ever embezzlement.
Burnice Iverson Geiger burst into newspaper headlines across Iowa and the country in January 1961 when she was accused of looting $2.1 million from Sheldon National Bank. Like Anderson, Geiger was a cashier. Unlike Anderson, she was family: Her father, William Iverson, was president of the bank, and Geiger was a part-owner of the institution and member of its board of directors.
Geiger, who was 58 at the time, said that shortly after beginning to work at the bank, around 1923, she discovered a theft that had gone unnoticed by other bank employees. She apparently decided to follow in that embezzler's footsteps, and over the course of the next 38 years blew at least $1 million of the bank's money on stock market speculation.
Geiger also illicitly invested around $900,000 in a local business. And she sent $140,000 to an interior decorator in San Francisco.
The loss exceeded the assets of the bank, and it collapsed. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. eventually paid $2,037,400 to depositors, a record at the time.
Geiger was sentenced to 15 years in prison and wound up at a federal prison in West Virgina. She was paroled in 1966 and died in October 1981 at age 78.