Sentenced to 18 months behind bars – Westin-embezzler arrested at the courthouse

POSTED: 09/26/13 1:43 PM

St. Maarten– The Court in First Instance had a nasty surprise in store for Anutha Chevan Gooneratne, a 38-year-old former room manager at the Westin Hotel yesterday morning. At his trial on September 4, the prosecution demanded a 24-month conditional prison sentence and 240 hours of community service for embezzling more than $220,000 from his employer, but Judge Koos van de Ven came up with a radically different ruling and sentenced Gooneratne to 18 months behind bars. The defendant walked into the courthouse still a free man but immediately after the ruling when he left the courtroom, he was arrested by waiting police officers.

Gooneratne booked money from Westin-accounts to his own bank account at Scotiabank between January 1, 2009 and May 31, 2011 for a total of at least $220,000.

The defendant told the court at his trial that not he, but financial manager De Mello was the brain behind the embezzlement. But the court established that the defendant had only mentioned de Mello as the one who discovered the fraud and who from that moment on asked him for money every now and then.

Asked why he came with his statement about the Mello for the first time in court, Gooneratne said that he acted out of fear and under pressure, but he never explained what his fear was based on. The court noted that the defendant never indicated during the seven times he was interrogated that he was unable to tell the truth. On one occasion he told investigators that he paid de Mello four or five times per month $500. “Based on all this the court rules that the defendant and not de Mello was the brain behind and the executor of the fraud.”

The court ruled that Gooneratne’s motive (he said he felt undervalued by his employer) is no valid reason for embezzlement. According to our sources, the defendant had an annual salary of $60,000. Court documents show that he collected between $300 and $500 per month in bonuses, and another $500 in tips. He drove a BMW lease car at an expense of $750 per month, always bought the latest electronics and also paid De Mello $2,000 every month. According to the court ruling, all this left Gooneratne with $5,100 in monthly disposable income. What happened to the money is unknown.

At the trial, prosecutor  Gonda van der Wulp demanded a conditional prison sentence and community service, reasoning that prison sentences for defendants that are not already in custody are seldom, if ever, executed due to cell shortages. Judge Van de Ven however left the cell shortage out of the equation and focused on the question whether the punishment the prosecution demanded is adequate. “Problems with the execution and the choices the public prosecutor’s office has to make fall outside of the scope of what is under consideration here.”

The ruling states that an unconditional prison sentence is fitting. “There is no reason to make part of the sentence conditional. The defendant has no work in St. Maarten, and he has no family here; at the trial it was said that his residence permit has expired and according to the court it is questionable whether the defendant could still get a hotel job with a certain level of responsibility in St. Maarten.”


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