Corina is waiting for me, sitting in a patch of sunlight at the table outside Starbucks. She looks different. Her auburn hair is longer, pulled back in a ponytail.
The last time I saw her she was pregnant and happy, smiling and chatting with customers. Now she’s hunching her shoulders as if to keep out the November cold. She’s wearing a black jacket over a hoodie and blue jeans. I notice under the table her black and gray sneakers have bright blue laces.
She asked me to meet her because she wanted to tell her side of the story.
She contacted me because she wanted to apologize.
Before she got into trouble, Corina worked at the Ashland Food Co-op, a place she rightly describes as “the hub of Ashland,” on and off for almost three years.
Last March she was charged with stealing. Over a four-month period she stole $12,595.00 in cash. Her son Gavin was six months old when she got caught.
When she went before the judge recently she pleaded guilty to four counts of theft.
She was sentenced to ten days in jail, 96 hours of community service, and paying back the money she stole. When the judge heard her lawyer’s plea and Corina’s own testimony, and when he saw the fact that she’s thirty-two years old and has no prior record or convictions, he folded the jail time into more community service hours.
So why did a new mom with an infant and no prior record of crime start stealing money?
Corina went back to work when Gavin was just a month old. Gavin’s dad, who’s ten years older than she is, watched the baby while she worked.
She tried to keep nursing.
“It was kind of hard, keeping up with the calories you have to make for breast milk, it’s a full time job in itself,” Corina, who is naturally slender and who looks too thin today, said. “When you’re working up there at the register and you’re supposed to be drinking water between customers, it’s hard to do.”
Gavin stopped nursing at four months and Corina felt depressed. She told me she has a history of mental illness and she thinks she was also suffering from post partum depression. Their car broke down in January, she was behind on the bills from taking a month off work and also from buying presents for family for Christmas, and she kept taking “draws,” advances from her paycheck to keep up with the rent payments on the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her partner and their infant son.
But she’s quick to add that these struggles are no excuse for what happened next. She tells me several times as we talk that she hopes I’ll write this story so that other women who find themselves in her position don’t make the same mistakes she’s made.
“None of it excuses my actions,” Corina says. “It might explain the process of why I got into that mindset, you know?”
When she first started taking small amounts of money from the Co-op, she used it to pay the bills. Then she and her partner spent the bigger chunks of cash on a new car (a 2002 Jeep Liberty that they bought used from someone in Eugene).
“I didn’t do it out of malice, or anything like that,” Corina gropes for the right way to explain. “At first we needed money. And then it just kept going and escalating, and he wanted things for the car, wheels for the car, and we had to do repairs on the car … there’s always something to repair.”
But once she started taking money, it was hard to stop.
“It’s never enough,” she says. “That’s one thing I found through all this … we wanted a TV and then we wanted furniture because we had no furniture. And we kept thinking, ‘once we get this, we’ll stop.’ I honestly don’t know how I got to that number. I’m looking back and I’m thinking ‘how?’”
Why didn’t she get caught sooner?
Though the newspaper articles about the theft made it sound like she was stealing at the register as customers went through the line, that wasn’t how she did it.
Instead, Corina would pocket cash at the end of the night in the count out room, which had no cameras.
She and the other cashiers would count the money in their tills.
Her coworkers, eager to leave, would count quickly so they could go home.
But Corina was always a slow counter. After they left she would slip bills into her apron pocket, roll it up, and bring it home in her backpack.
“It becomes a sort of addiction,” she said. Though her father’s an alcoholic, her mother unemployed, and her stepfather was jailed for molesting her sisters before he died, Corina tells me she’s managed to stay away from drugs and drinking. “Everyone has something that fills their need.”
The night she got caught
The bookkeeper started noticing that large amounts of money had gone missing.
Finally, one night, a manager confronted her while she was on break, a stack of papers in his hand.
“He was very nice and discreet,” Corina, who feels she was treated with kindness and compassion by all of her colleagues at the Co-op, remembers. “He’s such a sweetheart. He has such a big heart … He’s so full of bounce and life.”
The manager had called the police and an officer came to the store to question her. He told her right upfront he wasn’t going to arrest her that night. She was too embarrassed to talk in front of the manager and another employee (“I felt really bad”) but when they left the room she confessed everything to the officer.
“All I kept thinking was, ‘I just want to see my son before I get taken away.’”
The officer cited her that night and let her go home.
A mom and a one-year-old who are homeless now
She and Gavin, who’s over a year old now, stayed with her best friend and their family in Grants Pass for six months. Then she stayed with her mom and younger sister for five days, before they asked her to leave.
Now Corina and Gavin are homeless.
They’re living in a women’s shelter.
Her ex-partner (they broke up after she was criminally charged), who helps as much as he can with the baby, is homeless too.
Though he still has his job he’s living out of his car.
“I let everybody down”
Pulling her hair out of the ponytail, Corina tells me she understands why people feel disappointed in her, and angry. She says she would feel the same way if it were somebody else—not her—who had stolen the money.
“I hope that anyone who reads this—whether it’s someone who’s in my position and is thinking of doing something drastic like I did and getting themselves into trouble—will realize that it’s not worth it in the end,” she says. Her green eyes are sad.
The employees at the Co-op were like family to her.
“I know I can’t have that back … I just want them to know that I’m sorry.”
I want to hug her when I say goodbye but I hesitate. Shaking hands doesn’t seem right either. We stand facing each other awkwardly for a moment and then I walk back to my car, thinking about her sad story, about how it takes a village to raise a child, about how she said to the sentencing judge, “I want to get back on my feet and do right and do good,” and about how she told me that she’s a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn who said “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone,” and about how little support we have for new moms in this country, especially working class moms, especially moms who have to go back to work when their babies are just a few weeks old. And about how in a Scandinavian country where every woman is entitled to a year of paid maternity leave, Corina would never have become a criminal.
If this story makes you sad, there are ways to help:
1. Donate food to your local food bank. Ours is the Ashland Emergency Food Bank.
3. Advocate for social change: We need to pay every worker a livable wage and provide paid maternity and paternity leave for new parents in this country.