AUBURN — A Gardiner woman who embezzled more than $166,000 from her employer will serve three and a half years in prison.

Justice Donald Marden on Friday sentenced Bettysue Higgins, 54, to serve three and a half years of a six-year sentence. Higgins will also be placed on probation for three years after her release and she must pay $166,700 in restitution.

“I need help,” Higgins, bundled up in a puffy black jacket, told Marden during the hearing. “I truly had no idea what I was doing.”

In December, Higgins pleaded guilty to forgery and theft after admitting to forging the name of the 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.

Higgins, then serving as the group’s administrative assistant, doctored the organization’s books to conceal the theft. When Prince learned a check he had written bounced, he discovered the scheme.

Much of the stolen money went to online gaming.

“Ms. Higgins’ strong provocation to YoVille and other online games is directly related to low self-esteem and a strong desire to be valued and accepted by others,” Higgins’ attorney, Ronald Bourget, read from a mental health evaluation at the hour-long sentencing hearing Friday afternoon at Androscoggin County Superior Court.

An investigator found that between January 2009 and Sept. 10, 2010, Higgins had 78 checks deposited into her personal account and paid out the money to YoVille and Mafia Wars, which are online games played through Facebook and MySpace. Records showing her bank account transactions for February 2010 show she spent more than $4,000 on gaming just that month.

“Between 2009 and 2010, she frittered it all away on virtual items to increase her status in a virtual world,” said Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, asking Marden to have Higgins serve five years in jail of a six-year sentence and pay full restitution of $166,700.

Michael Higgins, Bettysue’s husband, said he knew nothing of the embezzlement. He said the couple was in bankruptcy and foreclosure during that time. He said he is concerned about his wife’s mental health.

“We’ve been married 35 years. I love her,” Michael Higgins told Marden. “I ask for your leniency today, sir.”

Bourget argued that Higgins’ sentence should be reduced to 12 to 18 months, saying that his client has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder and has never served jail time.

Before handing down the sentence, Marden admonished past heads of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association after being told by Prince that no background check had been conducted on Higgins before she went to work there in 2003.

Had a background check been done, the association might have found that 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.

Both sides appeared somewhat unhappy with the sentence. Bourget didn’t rule out appealing.

“I think the judge thought this out pretty carefully from the bench, but I want a chance to go back and review the various components before we decide any appellate process is going to take place,” Bourget said.

After the sentence was read, Robbin reached into her bag and pulled out a bound ream of papers, all with images of the 220 checks Higgins forged Prince’s name on.

Higgins told Marden that she had no intent of malice against Prince or the organization.

“‘I didn’t mean to hurt anybody?'” Robbin said, echoing Higgins’ statement. “I mean, she does this 220 times. I guess I’m not sympathetic with that aspect of her apology.”

Prince also spoke at the sentencing hearing, saying Higgins and he shared a close friendship in and out of the office, even sharing family outings and holiday meals together.

“After considering her 15 months of silence over this matter, I find it easier to interpret her plea last month as the last tactical decision of a con artist,” Prince said.

He said her crime has not only damaged his organization and workload, but him personally. When Higgins worked there, she and Prince were the group’s only two paid employees, and because of the financial burden of the crime, they haven’t filled her position.

“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. “I treated her as I have always been fortunate to be treated as an employee — as a partner whose contributions and ideas are always welcome.”

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

“They’re good, honest, hard-working lawyers and they didn’t deserve this,” she said. “I promise I will continue to seek help.”

Marden admonished Higgins for the embezzlement given her prior conviction in 1991, saying she should have known the consequences.

“She knew darn well what was going to happen not ‘if’ she got caught, but ‘when’ she got caught,” Marden said just before reading the sentence.

Robbin also said that Higgins’ offenses in 1991 should have deterred her.

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

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632

[email protected]

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