Crime

2 bookkeepers, 9 ‘phantom’ employees charged with stealing $1M from Zirkle Fruit

Eleven people are charged with stealing nearly $1 million from Zirkle Fruit Company in a years-long payroll scheme. The Selah-based company is one of the largest apple and cherry operations in Eastern Washington, including this organic facility in Prosser where honeycrisp apples have been packed.
Eleven people are charged with stealing nearly $1 million from Zirkle Fruit Company in a years-long payroll scheme. The Selah-based company is one of the largest apple and cherry operations in Eastern Washington, including this organic facility in Prosser where honeycrisp apples have been packed. Tri-City Herald

Two bookkeepers and nine of their family and friends have been charged with stealing nearly $1 million from Zirkle Fruit Company in a years-long payroll scheme.

Norma Ruth Garza, 52, and Maria Teresa Galarza, 38, allegedly organized the theft ring by issuing paychecks to “phantom” employees — people whose names were on the payroll list even though they never performed actual work.

The women worked out of the Paterson branch office of the Selah-based company.

Their scheme unraveled last November when both women were off on payday — Galarza on a scheduled vacation and Garza because her son had been killed, according to court documents.

The manager of a Finley ranch questioned why he’d been given 10 extra checks for non-employees. Both women tried to avoid any suspicion by calling in that day and claiming there had been a mistake, but their unusual behavior helped spark an investigation of the company’s payroll, documents said.

“Zirkle Fruit is cooperating with authorities to ensure that those responsible are held accountable under Washington’s criminal code,” the company said in a prepared statement to the Herald. “Civil collection proceedings will follow.”

Garza and Galarza no longer work for Zirkle Fruit, which is one of the largest apple and cherry operations in Eastern Washington, with multiple fields and orchards between the Canadian and Oregon borders.

“The wage theft operation appears to be isolated to individual office employees at a single ranch and controls have been implemented to protect against future such operations,” the company statement said. “Zirkle Fruit offers among the highest wages and most generous benefits in the fruit industry and these types of events are exceedingly rare.”

Garza declined to speak to company security about the investigation, and could not be located by Benton County sheriff’s Detective Larry Smith for an interview, court documents said.

She recently was arrested in Southern California on a $100,000 nationwide warrant. Online records show she is in the custody of the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office.

Garza is awaiting extradition to Kennewick to face charges of leading organized crime and four counts of forgery.

Summons sent to the Mabton home of Galarza and her husband, Geronimo Marquez Galarza, reportedly were returned to the Benton County Clerk’s Office. So on Thursday, Judge Bruce Spanner issued warrants when the couple missed their first appearance in Benton County Superior Court.

Maria Galarza is charged with first-degree identity theft and five counts of forgery. Geronimo Galarza, 44, faces first-degree theft and three counts of forgery.

Seven people did appear in court Thursday and had their trials set for Aug. 24. They all are out of custody on their personal recognizance.

David Prado, 47, of Pasco, Mario David Prado, 20, of Kennewick, and Veronica Araceli Garza, 37, of Prosser, are each charged with first-degree theft and three counts of forgery. Araceli Garza, who is Garza’s niece, also goes by Veronica Salinas.

Marisela Cristina Prado, 26, and Esmeralda Prado, 46, both of Kennewick, face charges of first-degree theft and four counts of forgery.

Enrique Barriga Moreno, 58, of Grandview, is charged with first-degree theft and eight counts of forgery. And Jennifer Marie Barriga, 19, of Grandview, has one count of first-degree theft.

The remaining defendant is Juan Antonio Ulloa, 59, the father of Maria Galarza. A $5,000 arrest warrant has been issued for him. He faces first-degree theft and three counts of forgery.

Court documents show that when Norma Garza and Maria Galarza were off on Nov. 22, two other employees covered their work at the Paterson office, including printing the payroll checks and having them delivered to Luis Garibaldo, the manager of their Finley location.

A couple of hours later, Galarza called in about the ranch schedule and said she would come in later in the week to print the checks and hand them out, documents said. She was told the checks already had been sent.

Then, Garibaldo reported the extra checks to the office, noting that several of them had the same last name of “Prado.”

That was followed by a call from Garza to the office, saying the checks Garibaldo was sending back should be placed in the office safe, court documents said. Office staff said Garza’s call was noteworthy because it was on the day of her late son’s viewing.

Garibaldo reported getting phone calls from the two bookkeepers who were off that day, and also noted that he was shocked to hear from Garza about payroll on a day she should have been grieving the death of her son, documents said.

When office staff received the extra checks, they noticed that the name on the first check was for Barriga, who is Garza’s daughter and had not worked for Zirkle Fruit since August 2016.

The investigation went back to April 2010, and totaled $956,153 in fraudulent paychecks over the years.

Esmeralda Prado, Garza’s friend, admitted to detectives that she was having financial difficulties in late 2013 or early 2014, so Garza offered to give her paychecks from Zirkle Fruit, court documents said. The only catch was that Prado allegedly had to return half of each check’s value to Garza.

“Eventually, Ms. Garza did the same with Prado’s husband (David Prado) and daughter (Marisela Prado),” Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor wrote. The Prados’ son, Mario, also reportedly received checks.

Galarza also allegedly admitted getting involved with her co-worker in producing the fraudulent checks for her husband and her father. She denied printing out any other fake checks, but said she received $23,000 to $24,000 from the paychecks produced for her husband, documents said.

Garza would retype an internal spreadsheet without the names of the phantom employees so the company didn’t have a record of the fraudulent checks, court documents said.

Moreno, Garza’s husband, received the most paychecks at 289 total. His alias, Daniel Alvarez, received 272 separate checks, documents said.

Investigators were able to link the alias to Moreno based on photos, a phone number and the fact that Moreno endorsed one check with his real name, then crossed it out and signed Alvarez, documents said.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer

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