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Towne Auto embezzler's lavish lifestyle comes crashing down

The expensive horses Billie Becker bought with the $4.1 million she stole from her employer are now being cared for by the people she betrayed: her boss and his wife.

The Aurora woman who pulled off what is believed to be the largest embezzlement in the history of Erie County is feverishly selling off her assets to return at least part of the fortune she swiped over seven years from Towne Automotive Group, one of the Buffalo area's largest car dealerships.

The most valuable assets so far are the seven dressage horses she bought. She has signed over ownership of the horses to the firm.

Company President Frank Downing said his wife, Shari, is taking care of the horses until they can be sold to good homes. The car dealership was started by Downing's father 48 years ago when he opened a Lincoln-Mercury showroom in Orchard Park. The business expanded to multiple showrooms and multiple makes of vehicles, and now employs 420. Frank Downing Sr. died in 2014, and his son said it is sad for him to know Becker stole from his father, "the greatest man in the world."

Becker, 55, pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree grand larceny and criminal tax fraud for not paying New York State taxes on the money she stole. The magnitude of the crime has left co-workers reeling, some in tears, and others who know her shocked, wondering how she did it and how she spent the money.

"It sickened me," Frank Downing said. "I literally got sick to my stomach."

Becker's video from 2016 of Chancellor, a $175,000 horse she purchased:

The crime might never have been discovered, if Becker had been at work Dec. 2 and taken a call from American Express.

The credit card company had a question about a check from Towne Auto for $125,000 written by Becker, and wanted to know which American Express account it should be posted toward.

There was just one problem. All the company American Express accounts were paid up, and the dealership could find no record of the check. The scam unraveled from there.

Becker had worked for the dealership since March 2001 and had been controller about eight years, according to Orchard Park Police.

She described her job in her Linked-In account like this: "Maximizes return on financial assets by establishing financial policies, procedures, controls and reporting systems. Accountable for the accounting operations of the company, to include the production of periodic financial reports, maintenance of an adequate system of accounting records and a comprehensive set of controls and budgets designed to mitigate risk, enhance the accuracy of the company's reported financial results and ensure that reported results comply with generally accepted accounting principles."

After Becker returned from vacation, Downing called her in and asked about the American Express payments. She admitted that she had been using company money to make payments on her personal credit accounts, and she said it had been going on since 2012. She told her boss she would cooperate fully, because she did not want to be arrested.

"She said, 'It is what you think it is,' " Downing said. "Then I terminated her, had somebody walk her out of the building. Since then it's just been sickening."

She had worked side by side through the years with the owners of the company. She was professional, and, they thought, outstanding in her job. And she also covered her tracks, and didn't talk at work about her expensive hobby of owning and showing dressage horses.

Towne Automotive's Frank Downing Jr. at his lot in Orchard Park in a file photo from May 19, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"When we found this out, I didn't want this to be true," Downing said. "It was huge breach of trust with somebody we respected."

The company went to Orchard Park Police, who arrested Becker Dec. 17. At the time, it was believed she had stolen about $1 million. But further investigation revealed there was $4.1 million missing, according to records going back to 2009.

She spent a lot of money on video gaming, at least $100,000. But most of the money apparently was spent in the tony world of dressage here and in Wellington, Fla. Wellington is known for its high-end horse shows in a 12-week session from January to March. Top prizes are in the thousands of dollars, drawing top horses and riders, including some Olympic equestrians. Dressage horses need to be exercised regularly, and Becker employed several riders and trainers. At least one of her horses, Dynamica, an Oldenburg mare, appeared at Wellington last year, according to Equestrian Worldwide Net.

Of the seven horses that Becker transferred to Towne Auto, Downing said three were in Florida, and two of those have been sold.

The value of the horses is $365,000, said Becker's attorney, Cheryl Meyers Buth. That includes Chancellor, $175,000; Belvedere, $150,000; Dynamica, $25,000; Dover, $10,000; and Prelude and Torino, $2,000 apiece.

Meyers Buth said Becker has already turned over $170,000 she received from the sale of a home in Florida, and she has a contract to sell her Aurora home. Meyers Buth said she also is holding in escrow another $180,000 from Becker's 401K account and the sale of equipment. She said her client hopes to have paid about $1 million in restitution by the time she is sentenced June 13.

Becker was very attached to the horses, Meyers Buth said.

"She did wrong, she has to make up for it. It's been crushing to her, but it comes with the territory," she said.

Becker, who remains free on $10,000 bail, faces mandatory state prison and the maximum sentence can be up to 25 years.

After Becker's arrest, Downing said Towne Auto's former chief financial officer and controller came back to help with the busy end-of -year reports. Employees, customers and members of the community have rallied in support, he said. The firm changed its financial procedures, and now can look back and see that Becker had changed some policies and controls that helped her cover up her misdeeds.

"The reports we saw showed the money was there," Downing said.

But it wasn't.

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