AUBURN — A Gardiner woman who pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $166,000 from her employer will serve 3 1/2 years in prison.

Justice Donald Marden today sentenced Bettysue Higgins, 54, to six years, all but 3 1/2 years suspended, plus a three-year probation period. She must pay $166,700 in restitution as a condition of probation.

In December, Higgins pleaded guilty forgery and theft after admitting to forging the name of Maine Trial Lawyers Association’s executive director, Steven Prince, between May 22, 2006, and Sept. 9, 2010, on 220 checks made payable to herself or to cash. She doctored the organization’s books to conceal the theft. When Prince learned a check he had written bounced, he discovered the scheme.

An investigator found that between January 2009 and September 10, 2010 Higgins had 78 checks deposited to her personal account and paid out the funds to Zynga YoVille and Zynga Mafia Wars, online games played through Facebook and MySpace.

“Between 2009 and 2010, she frittered it all away on virtual items to increase her status in a virtual world,” Robbin said, asking for Higgins to serve five years of a six-year sentence.

Higgins attorney Ronald Bourget said Higgins has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder and had never served jail time, so her time served should be reduced to 12 to 18 months.

Higgins tearfully struggled through a terse speech to Marden, apologizing to the Maine Trial Lawyers Association.

“I need help,” she said. “I truly had no idea what I was doing.”

Michael Higgins, Bettysue’s husband, said he had no idea about her scheme and is concerned about her mental health.

“We’ve been married 35 years. I love her,” he said to Marden. “I ask for your leniency today, sir.”

In 1991, Higgins was convicted of theft by misapplication of property and theft by deception for taking more than $2,000 from the Gardiner area school district. Then, she kept lunch money she was supposed to deposit. Higgins received a suspended sentence and spent no time in jail for that felony offense.

A state prosecutor said that offense should have deterred her.

“In this case, that didn’t work for Bettysue Higgins,” Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said. “The lesson she appeared to take away from her last encounter with the criminal justice system was, ‘Crime does pay.'”

Prince spoke at the hour-long sentencing at Androscoggin County Superior Court, saying Higgins and he shared a close friendship in and out of the office, even sharing family trips and holiday meals together.

He said her crime has not only damaged his organization and workload, but him personally.

“I trust a little less, I laugh a little less and I’m a little less open, in matters both professional and personal,” he said.

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