A Fairfax County lawyer who stole $439,000 from a Vienna law firm and allegedly another $63,000 from his clients in 2003, then spent the next two years living in Argentina, has been sentenced to four months in jail and ordered to repay the money at a rate of $50 a month.
The June 17 sentencing of Robert M. Short, 39, of Arlington ended one chapter of a sensational case that began when Short vanished two years ago with hundreds of thousands of dollars purloined from the firm of Trapeni, Romero & Morrison on Chain Bridge Road.
Jenna Sands, the assistant Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney handling the sentencing, asked Circuit Court Judge Leslie Alden not to impose only probation and complained about Short's offer to repay $50 a month for restitution of $245,000. "The defendant will be long dead before he ever pays off," Sands noted.
Short said he realized that $50 a month was not much, but that he planned to get a job and increase the payments.
"I intend to pay every penny of that," he said. "I am deeply regretful and deeply remorseful of the dishonor I've brought to my profession, this court, my former firm, my friends, my family."
Short had once worked for Trapeni, Romero & Morrison, but had established a solo practice and was renting space from the firm, according to court records.
Short evidently remembered where the firm kept its checkbook. Court records show that in February 2003, he wrote five Trapeni checks to himself for a total of $439,006, then deposited all but $3,000 in his lawyer's trust account.
The following day, according to authorities in New Jersey, Short wired $250,000 to the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. Short then drove to the casino, withdrew a $10,000 marker and played a little roulette, losing $1,000, according to John R. Hagerty, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
Short then returned to the cashier and asked for his money: $249,000 cash, authorities said. A surveillance videotape showed Short piling the money into a suitcase and walking out of the Taj Mahal. New Jersey authorities investigated the transaction and in November 2003 indicted Short for money laundering and receiving stolen property.
Short quickly took off from Atlantic City. He next turned up in western Kansas, not far from the Colorado border, weaving on Interstate 70 in a rented Toyota Camry. A sheriff's deputy pulled him over and arrested him after allegedly finding marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
The deputy also found $207,700 cash and a .357-caliber pistol in the Camry, both of which he seized. But Short's Fairfax theft had not been uncovered yet, and his transactions in New Jersey had not yet resulted in charges. The Thomas County, Kan., sheriff's department charged Short with two drug misdemeanors and released him on bond after a night in the county jail.
Court records show that Short arrived in Las Vegas soon after his release from jail. He withdrew another $164,947 from his lawyer's trust account and stayed at the MGM Grand hotel and casino on the Vegas strip. Then he disappeared.
The Virginia State Bar hired a receiver to investigate Short's law practice. The receiver found that Short had absconded with $63,709 in money that he had received from clients as advance fees, or money he had received that was supposed to be paid to clients, according to court records. Short was never charged with those thefts.
Short was disbarred. He was charged with forgery and writing a bad check in Fairfax. He was charged with money laundering and receiving stolen property in New Jersey. He also was charged with failing to return his rental car to a company in Falls Church. But authorities had no clue where he was.
According to a brief written by Short's lawyer, William R. Edwards, Short fled to Argentina. Short had become depressed over the breakup of his marriage and an estrangement from his daughter, who was 12 at the time. But his daughter visited him for Christmas in 2004, and Short decided he wanted to return and renew his relationship with her, Edwards said.
In March, Short phoned authorities in New Jersey and advised them he would be arriving at Dulles International Airport the next day. Immigration authorities were waiting, and he was turned over to Fairfax.
At his sentencing Friday, Short stood and said he was feeling "perhaps the most shame I've ever felt in my life. . . . I wish I had a rational explanation of why I did what I did. I take full responsibility, and I don't mean to hide behind any of my mental or emotional difficulties."
The money allegedly stolen from his clients was not mentioned in the hearing or included in the restitution amount.
Alden could have imposed a sentence of up to 10 years on each count. Instead, she imposed a five-year term on each count, suspending all but two months on each count, and 10 years total probation. She agreed to the $50-a-month repayment of $245,000. Alden did not explain her reasons for the sentence and did not say whether she was aware of the pending New Jersey charges.
New Jersey authorities are still interested in prosecuting Short on charges of money laundering and receiving stolen property, Hagerty said. Those charges carry a total possible sentence of 10 years in prison.
Short, who has been in jail since early March, was released by Fairfax to the custody of Falls Church on Monday. Prisoners serving time for minor jail sentences in Fairfax often are released after serving half of their sentence, which Short had completed. After Falls Church authorities deal with the rental car charge, he will face prosecution in New Jersey.