Sumter man sentenced to 3 years in federal prison for stealing $800,000 from nonprofit

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA/THE FRESNO BEE/Fresno Bee Staff Photo

A Sumter man was sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to embezzling over $800,000 from a substance abuse nonprofit.

Rodney Ellis was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in July to stealing from his employer, Sumter Behavioral Health Services.

“By stealing from an organization that serves those suffering from substance abuse, Ellis took from those he should have been protecting,” said U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs. “Financial crimes are not victimless, and often do the most harm to those who need help the most.”

United States District Judge Terry L. Wooten sentenced Ellis, 71, to 33 months in federal prison. The sentence will be followed by a three-year term of court-ordered supervision, and Ellis will be required to pay $812,259 in restitution.

In a plea for leniency at sentencing, family members painted a portrait of a generous man beset with chronic health issues who didn’t appear to have benefited from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he admitted to stealing.

Beginning in 2013, Ellis used his position as financial officer to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into his personal bank accounts. In May, he was charged with three counts of wire fraud in a case prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Bowers. Wire fraud carries a potential penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

“My greatest worry is that my dad will die in prison,” wrote Ellis’ son Russell in an affidavit submitted to the court by Ellis’ attorney, Richard C. Jones. In court documents, friends and family members described Ellis’ longstanding health issues including an enlarged heart, severe sleep apnea, chronic pain and mobility issues.

“I am very uncomfortable just watching him go up the three or four steps of my house because I fear he will fall,” wrote Ronnie Wilson, Ellis’ wife’s ex-husband and neighbor. “If he fell on the ground, I don’t know that he could get up.”

Family members described a modest life beset with employment struggles. Ellis was expelled from the Marines in 1983 for being 6 pounds over the weight limit, according to his son Russell. In the early ‘90s, he fell into a deep depression following his divorce and stopped caring for his health. Around 1998 he lost his accounting firm and CPA license after “making a mistake,” and, unable to support himself, he lost his house a few years later.

Today, Ellis and his second wife live in three-bedroom bungalow and share a car, according to his stepdaughter, Tara Michelle Wilson Yates.

“Rod has helped others, but he sure has not spent any money on himself,” his neighbor said, describing a house in need of repair, with peeling linoleum, broken fans and bare lamp bulbs in the bedroom.

“My dad is a people-pleaser and an enabler,” Russell Ellis said. “(He) gave the money he took to help other people. ... He has seen tough times, and he does not want others to go through what he has suffered.”

“Rod has the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met,” Yates said. “But it is to a fault.”