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Erie County's biggest embezzler ever gets prison for stealing $4.1 million

The woman who committed the largest single case of embezzlement in Erie County history struggled to contain her emotions during her sentencing hearing Tuesday that ended with a term of four to 12 years in prison.

When the time came for her to make a statement, Billie B. Becker broke down. She said she was sorry for what she did to those at Towne Automotive Group, a company started and still run by the Downing family.

“Through all of this I never got a chance to apologize to the Downings for what I’ve done to them,” she said tearfully. “They treated me like family. I wish I could pay it all back.”

Becker, the former comptroller at Towne Automotive Group, previously pleaded guilty to first-degree grand larceny and tax fraud for stealing $4.1 million from her employer over seven years.

She didn’t do it for gambling or for drugs.

She stole the money to buy, care for and train horses for competitive dressage.

Becker bought her first dressage horse in 1997, and fell in love with the expensive sport, said Becker’s attorney, Cheryl Meyers Buth.

“Since Ms. Becker’s arrest, a number of people have come up to me, they all want to know what did she do with the money and why did she do it,” Meyers Buth said. "I don’t know that even she can articulate why she did it.”

Along with using her employer’s money for her horses, Becker spent about $100,000 on in-game purchases to play the online video game War.

“It’s not gambling. Participants spend real money to buy fantasy properties and to overcome their opponents,” Meyers Buth said. “Even I was struck by the amount she spent.”

So paying back what she stole proved impossible.

"There really wasn’t any money left," Meyers Buth said. "She had been spending it as she was taking it.”

To come up with slightly over $1 million in restitution that she has paid, Meyers Buth said, “she sold literally everything she owns.”

That included Becker’s longtime home in East Aurora, a Florida condominium, six dressage horses and “her furniture, down to the last set of table and chairs,” the lawyer said. Becker also cashed out her 401(k) and returned some stock she owned connected to her job at Towne.

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The business was started 48 years ago by Frank Downing Sr. His son, Frank Jr., is now president of the family-run company, which has about 420 employees.

Judge Kenneth F. Case said he took into account opinions from the victims.

In letters to the court about sentencing, the Downings did not ask that Becker receive the maximum possible penalty, which could have been 25 years in prison. The judge said it was, in fact, the opposite.

One member of the Downing family said he believed Becker made a sincere effort to pay back what she could. Another family member said that “as a Christian, I have trouble with hard sentences,” but added that, as a citizen, he felt punishment was necessary to serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals.

“On the other hand, $4.1 million is hard for people to even comprehend," Case said. "One hundred thousands dollars is a lot of money, $200,000 is a lot of money, $500,000 is a lot of money, and this wasn’t even $1 million, $2 million or $3 million.

“The Downings say they felt betrayed and have lost trust in people, especially after providing you with such a wonderful job and wonderful salary,” Case said.

In addition to the indeterminate sentence of four to 12 years for grand larceny, the judge sentenced Becker to 1 1/3 to 4 years for her tax fraud conviction, with the terms to run concurrently.

Assistant District Attorney Gary M. Ertel said Becker owes the state $256,000 in taxes and that, deducting $1 million covered by insurance, the Downings’ loss still was over $2 million. Once she is released from prison, Becker will be expected to repay $500 a month toward reducing that number.

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