Mar 2014, ANFORD, CA – For Dr. Darrell Kirby and his wife, Joni, last week marked the end of a terrible ordeal.
The owners of iCare of Hanford, an optometry clinic on West Myrtle Street, the Kirbys have been fighting for almost a year to repair their relationship with the community.
Prosecutors say the damage was done by Luz “Lucy” Canales, a six-year employee of the Kirbys who stole more than $30,000 from their practice. She later pleaded guilty to a felony charge of embezzlement.
On Thursday, Canales was sentenced at Kings County Superior Court. The maximum sentence she could face was three years in prison. But Judge Thomas DeSantos, citing the fact that jail overcrowding would likely result in an early release, gave her five years of probation instead.
“The court felt that by giving her a lengthy probationary period they could have been control over her,” Prosecutor Louis Torch said. “If she violates the conditions of her probation, then she’ll have to serve the full three year sentence.”
She’s also been ordered to pay back the Kirbys $31,277 in restitution. She will also have to serve 180 days in jail.
DeSantos noted there were no signs of remorse anywhere in her plea or the arrest record.
“People say you shouldn’t get too close to your employees. That’s unfortunate,” Joni Kirby said. “In our office, we’re like a regular family. We care about the people who work here. Which made this situation that much harder.”
Canales came to work for the Kirbys in 2007. Around that time, Kirby himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His radiation treatment forced him to take a few months off. An associate was brought in to do the optometry work in his absence.
“Everything went into a bit of turmoil,” Kirby said.
Canales was hired, in part, because she spoke fluent Spanish. She had roots in the community. Kirby felt she could help them connect with the underserved Hispanic community.
Instead, Canales used the language barrier for financial gain. She told patients they would have to pay for services in cash. Then, she would overcharge them and pocket the difference.
I have found embezzlement in dental practices where language barriers were employed by staff to steal. Specifically; Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Spanish and French. – Bill
“She kept putting the blame on us,” Kirby said.
As the only person who could speak with some of the patients, Canales found ways to make money without touching the accounting books. She told patients to meet her after hours, or visited them at their homes to collect payments, which she kept for herself, prosecutors said.
Another problem: Canales would rush to answer the phone first, rarely giving other staff a chance to speak with patients about these problems. (“rushing to intercept patient communication is a red-flag” – Bill)
This went on until May 2013.
Kirby, meanwhile, was ill for more than two years. At one point, his cancer reoccurred.
“It was very easy of her to take advantage of us,” he said. “We were going through a lot of changes. My wife was under tremendous pressure to keep things running. These problems would’ve shown up sooner, but we were in so much turmoil it was hard to spot.”
Kirby noticed things were amiss when he returned to work. By then, the office had more Spanish-speaking employees, who could voice the patients’ concerns. Complaints kept coming in.
But Canales denied any wrongdoing.
The final straw was when a patient came in one day claiming he had already paid for his glasses. Staff searched the office from top to bottom, sure that maybe the money had been misplaced. Then Canales came up with the money, saying it had been stuck behind the patient’s chart. (patient complaints about their account balances is another red flag – Bill)
“It was so outrageous that we began to ask questions,” Joni Kirby said. “We started digging.”
Their search turned up more than a hundred discrepancies buried in the paperwork.
“I can’t even express in words how devastating this was,” Joni Kirby said. “I watched her kids. I gave her furniture. I always thought of her as part of my family.”
Canales quit. The next day, she texted one of her colleagues and asked her to cover up some discrepancies on the charts.
“Monica showed me these text messages and I was just in shock,” Joni Kirby said. “I don’t think I spoke a word for weeks. I felt so violated.”
Hanford police were called in. They investigated for about a month before arresting Canales.
“The financial loss was hard enough,” Kirby said, “but she also destroyed our relationship with the community. She discredited us.” (when caught, many perpetrators will slander the docs – Bill)
To this day, patients still come in with problems which can be tied back to Canales’ actions.
“I just want other businesses to understand that this can happen to you,” Joni Kirby said. “I never thought it could happen to us. If you think it can’t happen to you, then you better be careful.”
While still trusting, Joni Kirby is a changed woman now. She’s more alert to what goes on in her office. She never allows a patient to be handled by one lone staff member. They even went so far as to install cameras throughout the office.
“She made us out to be horrible people,” Joni Kirby said. “One patient wouldn’t even look me in the eye.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Canales declined to make a statement. She smirked and shook her head as the Kirbys read prepared letters to the court.
“These people spent years cultivating their good name. They placed a lot of trust in this woman and she took advantage of them,” Torch said.
Kirby, who came to Hanford in 1972 and has worked here ever since, said he hopes word-of-mouth will help bring back those patients Canales turned away.
“We want to reach out to anyone who has been hurt by her. My heart goes out to any patient who was mistreated,” Joni Kirby said. “Our goal is to make good on the damage she did, to bring back those people she turned away. Our office is better than ever now.”
Canales was booked into the Kings County Jail on Friday to begin her 180 day sentence.