Edith Plaugher said she doesn't know why she embezzled $9,800 from the Manassas Park Volunteer Fire Company over a five-month period, but she said the aftermath has changed her life forever.

Plaugher, 52, the former president of the small fire department, received two years of probation after she pleaded guilty to one charge of embezzling funds. Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. sentenced her Thursday to three years in prison, all suspended, and ordered her to do 100 hours of community service.

Millette said he considered a sentence for Plaugher that would have included time behind bars--the embezzlement charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison--but concluded that the longtime community activist has suffered enough as a result of her actions.

"You have suffered a grievous loss by the act you committed; you have fallen in esteem with the community," Millette said. "I believe that does send a message to the community."

Plaugher, sobbing, testified Thursday that she didn't know why she took the money, which prosecutors said was used to pay for a variety of personal expenses, such as items from mail-order catalogues, diet products and Christmas gifts, and to make auto loan payments to a local bank. When Millette asked her whether she needed the money, Plaugher responded: "I didn't."

As president of the fire company, Plaugher had control of its money and was able to write checks with a co-signer. Manassas Park officials said the co-signer raised concerns about Plaugher's spending in April, prompting an internal audit and later a Virginia State Police investigation.

Plaugher was suspended from her post in early May and was subsequently fired from her job as an emergency dispatcher with Manassas Park police. With a felony conviction, it is unlikely that Plaugher will be able to find employment with another law enforcement agency.

"She has accepted responsibility for her actions," defense attorney Allen Newcomb said. "This organization had trusted her; the community had trusted her. She is very upset, as you can tell. She's a changed person, and that felony will never go away."

Millette said what concerned him most about the case was the fact that she "violated the community's trust," setting a bad example.

Plaugher apologized in court, saying she is "sorry that I caused my family, my friends and the my community harm . . . that I let them down."

"It's changed my whole life," she said, crying. "I just will never do anything like this again."

According to court records, Plaugher is in the process of paying back the funds. She told the court Thursday that she refinanced her family's home to do so.