- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A former chief operating officer who stole more than $9 million from his gas drilling company to feed his casino gambling habit has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and income tax fraud.

Larry Dean Winckler will be sentenced May 30 by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence McVerry, who accepted his guilty plea on Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Melucci and defense attorney Martin Dietz agreed that federal guidelines call for a sentence of just over five years in prison to as much as 6 1/2 years. Winckler, 53, has agreed to forfeit more than $481,000 in a bank account, jewelry including four Rolex watches and a house to help satisfy the debt.

Winckler didn’t comment beyond answering the judge’s questions with “yes” or “no” answers, and Dietz declined to comment except when asked how much of the thefts were driven by Winckler’s gambling habit.

“Every penny,” Dietz said.

Melucci told the judge that the thefts from Falcon Drilling LLC, in Indiana County about 45 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, stretched back to 2004 and that investigators determined Winckler gambled away millions of dollars at casinos in Pennsylvania and out of state, including Caesar’s Atlantic City in New Jersey and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

Winckler is the third person to plead guilty in connection with his thefts.

The first was Cheryl Diane Brooks, of Clymer, who pleaded guilty in January 2013 to her role in helping Winckler steal more than $5.4 million from the company, including $557,000 she kept for herself.

Brooks has cooperated with the government. She has been selling off personal assets to repay her debt and has surrendered a vested pension. She’s scheduled for sentencing in August.

Brooks joined the firm as a secretary/executive assistant in 2001 and despite not having an accounting background was such a hard, dedicated worker that she became its controller by 2004.

That’s when, Melucci said, Winckler went to Brooks begging for money to help pay off a gambling debt.

Brooks at first helped Winckler cash company checks, wound up stealing money for herself and then joined the mail fraud scheme when auditors hired by the company started reviewing its books. Brooks helped prepare the letters in which Winckler denied any knowledge of fraud to the auditors in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Winckler also pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns for 2008, 2009 and 2010, never declaring more than $290,000 in annual income even though, including his thefts, he made $1.4 million or more in each of those years.

Winckler’s tax debt is nearly $1.2 million combined for those years, Melucci told the judge.

Brooks had previously acknowledged filing false tax returns for those years, never declaring more than $64,000 annually, though she made triple that because of how much she stole.

The third person charged is former auto repair shop owner Daniel Pikel, who’s serving 27 months in prison for helping Winckler launder about $3 million he stole. Pikel pleaded guilty to cashing hundreds of checks for fake invoices, then returning the money to Winckler.

Pikel has acknowledged receiving a few thousand dollars for his trouble.

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