Dentist's family's troubles resurface

2009-06-16T00:00:00Z Dentist's family's troubles resurfaceBy Carol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 16, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Some families seem to suffer one heartache after another. The family of retired Tucson dentist Nels Rasmussen is one of them.

Days after Los Angeles police arrested one of their own detectives in the 1986 slaying of Rasmussen's younger daughter, his eldest was sentenced to federal prison for swindling more than $365,000 from Tucson's veterans hospital.

"I cannot emotionally endure the loss of another daughter," the dentist's wife, Loretta Rasmussen, 74, pleaded in a letter to the court, hoping to keep her firstborn, Connie Sue Wilkinson, out of confinement.

But the judge wasn't inclined toward leniency.

Wilkinson, 55, was sentenced Monday to 27 months behind bars — the full amount of time requested by prosecutors — and was ordered to repay the money she pocketed over a seven-year period and largely squandered on shopping sprees.

Prosecutors said Wilkinson started stealing in 1999, shortly after she became the clinical director of education, training and development for the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System.

"I have to impose a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the offense," said U.S. District Judge David. C. Bury, stressing that Wilkinson embezzled "taxpayer dollars allotted for the treatment and counseling of our veterans."

"She committed the offenses out of greed, not need," Bury said. At the time, the judge noted, Wilkinson was earning more than $97,000 a year from her VA job.

Wilkinson pleaded guilty to three felonies in a plea deal last October, but the punishment phase of her case was postponed repeatedly for various reasons at her lawyer's request.

Last week, shortly after the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had closed in on her younger sister's killer, Wilkinson again asked the federal court in Tucson to stall her sentencing "to allow the family to deal with the trauma of the murder case."

But the sentencing went ahead Monday when the judge refused to allow another delay.

Wilkinson's murdered sister, Sherri Rasmussen, was raised in Tucson and moved to Los Angeles for college and work. She was beaten and shot to death there at age 29, a few months after marrying a man who had previously been involved with a female LAPD officer.

The female officer, Stephanie Lazarus, 49, now stands accused 23 years later in Sherri Rasmussen's death. Cold-case detectives said they recently matched Lazarus' DNA with saliva from a bite mark on the dead woman's body.

Nels Rasmussen, the 75-year father of Sherri Rasmussen and Connie Wilkinson, did not return calls Monday. Last week, his attorney held a press conference in Los Angeles accusing the LAPD of botching the original murder probe.

Wilkinson, in a tearful address at her sentencing hearing, had asked the judge to spare her from prison for the sake of her stricken family.

"I am sorry for my actions, and I fully understand that what I did was wrong," she said, noting that she already had "paid a profound personal price."

Lawyer Laura Edwards, who represented Wilkinson at the sentencing hearing, said that while her client still has support from friends and family members, her life is a shambles because of her crimes.

Since the VA fired her, Wilkinson has lost her house, her nursing license and a string of other jobs and now is unemployed and living with her parents.

An independent psychiatric evaluation, prepared at the request of the defense, found that Wilkinson has several mental and emotional conditions, including substance abuse, anxiety and adjustment disorders, and learning problems. She also was described as depressed, with suicidal thoughts.

Prosecutor Mary Sue Feldmeier, an assistant U.S. attorney, said Wilkinson deserved prison time because the thefts occurred over a long period of time and involved an array of complex schemes. In one scheme, Wilkinson set up a fake business enterprise and billed the VA more than $244,000 for fictitious services, using her government credit card to pay the bogus bills.

In another, she used the credit card to buy nearly $50,000 worth of gift certificates to Target and Amazon, and spent the money on clothes, jewelry, computers, home decorating and other items.

Wilkinson already has repaid more than $40,000 of the stolen money and will have to refund the rest after serving her time.

She has asked to be sent to a prison in Southern California, where her parents are expected to spend time during the trial in her sister's killing.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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