- Associated Press - Friday, June 29, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - A South Dakota jury on Friday cleared a woman accused of aiding an embezzlement scheme that exploded into public view after a man killed his family and then himself.

Stephanie Hubers was found not guilty of grand theft, grand theft by deception and alternative receiving stolen property charges. Defense attorney Clint Sargent said after the verdict that prosecutors didn’t have any evidence she knew about the scheme.

Hubers was an assistant business manager at Mid-Central Educational Cooperative when prosecutors said she got about $55,000 to keep quiet about embezzlement by business manager Scott Westerhuis and his wife.

Westerhuis killed his wife and their four children in 2015 before setting their home ablaze and killing himself. Investigators believe Scott and Nicole Westerhuis stole more than $1 million before their deaths.

Hubers told jurors she didn’t know the couple was stealing, testifying: “I still don’t believe it.” Sargent successfully contended that Hubers “didn’t steal a thing,” saying jurors had to clear her because the state didn’t prove she had specific intent to steal, defraud or receive property knowing it was stolen.

“We all know now that Scott Westerhuis was the worst kind of monster. He was a control freak who marketed himself as a savior - but he was a destroyer,” Sargent said in his closing argument. “He didn’t have accomplices. He just had victims, especially those closest to him.”

Hubers testified that Scott Westerhuis portrayed the extra payments to her as a raise for her work at Mid-Central, and she reported the income for tax purposes. Educational cooperatives provide services to member school districts in areas such as special education.

Hubers faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines for each count in a case decided on her 46th birthday. She and others went into a room outside the court chamber after the verdict, cheering and hugging.

She left without speaking to reporters, but Sargent said she wanted him to thank her family, friends, the judge and the jury.

“They obviously listened and most importantly, they followed the law,” Sargent said of the jury, which deliberated for nearly six hours before returning the verdict.

Attorney General Marty Jackley, who prosecuted the case, gave his appreciation to jurors and said he respects their verdict. Jackley had argued Hubers knew about the couple’s scheme to steal money, actively participated in the theft and did it for personal gain. Jackley said during the trial that Hubers stole the $55,000 by submitting false invoices for work she didn’t perform.

He argued that if jurors didn’t convict her for grand theft, they should find her guilty of receiving stolen property for taking the $55,000, which she knew was stolen or probably stolen by Scott Westerhuis.

“She knew dang well that Scott Westerhuis was stealing that money,” Jackley said in his closing argument. “She knew dang well that she wasn’t entitled to that $55,000.”

He emphasized Hubers‘ close relationship to the Westerhuis family - going boating and spending time at their home, and that she got the money for doing “nothing other than cashing a check.”

Hubers‘ trial came more than two years after authorities launched a financial investigation because of the deaths. The investigation spurred the felony charges in 2016 against Hubers and two others who allegedly helped in the couple’s embezzlement scheme.

The two others charged in the case, former Mid-Central Director Dan Guericke and consultant Stacy Phelps, are to face trial later.

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