BELLINGHAM - Over the past decade, a Bellingham woman has fleeced at least three employers and, ultimately, a widower who tried to help her through a gambling addiction.
Laura Lee Kaye Johnson is serving more than four years in prison for swiping a dead woman's identity to try to cover her cable television, heat and electric bills.
Johnson met Robert F. Kenney, now 76, at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting about eight years ago. She cried to him: She was in big trouble in Illinois for embezzling thousands of dollars - a grand jury pinned the loss at $1.5 million - from an insurance company. According to Chicago Tribune archives, she bought at least three houses, two motorcycles and other vehicles by diverting her coworkers' mortgage money to her bank accounts from 1999 to 2004.
If she ever returned to Illinois she would go to prison, she told Kenney, and she was scared.
He convinced her to go back, he said. They kept in touch. Kenney wrote letters to her while she was locked up. He and his wife, Patricia, offered to help her start anew when she got out.
Johnson eventually found a job in the small law office of Greg Boos, an immigration attorney based in Fairhaven. She interviewed well and gave outstanding references, Boos said. But within six months, he caught her using his credit card to buy personal things.
"She was pretty slick. I don't know if I should say I tip my hat, or what," Boos said. "I felt strongly: There should be a record locally."
Johnson, 55, pleaded guilty to third-degree theft in June 2009. She never did time for the gross misdemeanor, instead agreeing to a suspended jail sentence and $300 restitution.
Having a local record, as it turned out, didn't keep her from landing a job as a bookkeeper at Mount Baker Vineyards, near Deming, two years later. Robert Finley, the vintner, had hired her full time on a "sterling" reference from Kenney, who neglected to mention her sordid past.
"My goal was to help her, not hurt her," said Kenney. He firmly believed she could be rehabilitated, with a little support and kindness from others - a belief he no longer holds.
Johnson didn't wait long before snatching Finley's business credit card from his desk and filling up her gas tank at Dodson's IGA. She waited to see if she got caught, according to Finley. But because of the way the winery did business - almost always using cash or checks, to stay within state laws on alcohol sales - Finley only figured it out months later, when he had a problem with taxes, and Johnson was out of the office.
He went down to his bank and found the credit card had been maxed out by peculiar purchases: among them, $6.39 from Walmart; $10.38 from Amazon.com; $121.70 at OfficeMax; $209.95 for DirecTV hardware; a refrigerator and a couch from Sears; and the gas from Dodson's.
"That's not possible," Finley informed the teller. He used the card only for business expenses, maybe once a month, and "I never, ever bought gas at Dodson's."
A deeper look into the vineyard's finances showed Johnson had given herself more than $8,000 in extra paychecks, on top of her regular wages of $14 an hour.
Finley reported the crimes and fired Johnson in October 2011. Prosecutors charged her with 28 felonies, most of them for identity theft.
About that time Kenney's wife, Patricia, found out she had pancreatic cancer. Four weeks later, she died. On the walkway to Central Lutheran Church in Bellingham, there's an engraved tile: FOR MY ANGEL / IN HEAVEN / PATRICIA KENNEY / 11-12-11.
Kenney spiraled into an emotional nosedive.
Enter Johnson. She showered him with hugs and kisses, offering to help him through the pain of his loss. She stayed at his home on Robin Lane, cared for him, talked with him about one day getting remarried. Kenney clung to the idea of her company. He had fallen in love, he said.
And fallen prey to a trap. Just before she moved out, Johnson looted Patricia's wallet and all of the cards inside. In a matter of weeks Comcast hooked up cable to her new house on Laurelwood Avenue, in the Kenney name. Johnson claimed Patricia was her mother. She did the same thing with Cascade Natural Gas and Puget Sound Energy.
Then the electric company called to talk with Patricia. But "Mom" was sick, Johnson insisted, and couldn't come to the phone.
All the while, Kenney doted on her. He paid her rent, bought her a red Subaru Forester and, in a regrettably ironic move, paid $15,000 in attorney's fees for her defense in the winery case.
"I paid for the things I did out of my heart," Kenney said. "And I paid for it, all right."
Through an inquisitive phone call from Johnson's daughter, he found out about the stolen wallet. He was devastated, driven to suicide.
"I've tried three times," Kenney said, "to take my life over this thing."
Johnson was arrested on suspicion of stealing Patricia's identity in August 2012 at her new job, a rock quarry near Everson. The company told law officers they found her tax and employment documents were forged, according to court records. Sheriff's deputies asked for her ID. She presented a social security card and a photocopy of a Washington state identity card. Both were fakes, showing the full name of "Laura Lee Kaye."
Johnson pleaded guilty last month to first-degree theft, four counts of first-degree criminal impersonation, two counts of second-degree identity theft and two counts of forgery. Superior Court Judge Chuck Snyder ordered her to serve four years and nine months in prison, and to repay $29,000 to Mount Baker Vineyards.
She now resides at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, awaiting a possible early release date of June 2016.
At one time, Johnson had solicited donations for the Bellingham chapter of Books to Prisoners, a volunteer nonprofit that mails literature to inmates.
In retrospect the group's coordinator, Tom Aeschliman, realized the smooth-talking Johnson would always bring in lots of books and a few checks from donors, but almost no cash. Now he thinks he knows where the cash went. But he never found any proof and has no interest in pursuing it.
"Some people clearly do belong in prison, as they are unfortunately a hazard to the people around them," Aeschliman said via email. "We'll still send them books, though."
He believes Johnson - a "masterful liar" and a "true predator," as he called her - deserves to be locked up.
And Kenney is of the same mind. He made a promise to himself to speak at every parole hearing, to keep her behind bars as long as possible.
At the Lutheran church on North Forest Street, a few steps from Kenney's memorial to Patricia, there's another message: BOB KENNEY, / THANK YOU FOR SAVING / MY LIFE. / LAURA JOHNSON.
"I'm having it cut out," Kenney said. "I've got to."