School District Accountant Charged with Stealing $1.8 Million in Lunch Money

Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Judith Oakes (photo: Rialto Police Department)

A former Southern California school district accountant, reportedly videotaped stuffing large amounts of cash in her bra at work, was charged with embezzling $1.8 million in student lunch money over a 14-year period. 

The arrest of Judith Oakes in August triggered a slew of investigations by the Rialto Police Department, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Office and the California  Department of Education, but it was a Rancho Cucamonga private detective who got the ball rolling with a forensic audit of the Rialto Unified School District’s nutrition program.

The initial probe by Stewart Investigations Services was said to implicate a number of people, according to the San Bernardino Sun, and put the suspected haul at $3.16 million. The lunch program is administered to 29 schools and has an annual budget of $16 million.

Oakes was arrested August 7 on suspicion of embezzlement and quit her job at Rialto Unified the next day. A week later, questions were raised at a school board meeting about how the crime could have been committed without detection, and aspersions were cast upon Rialto Unified Superintendent Harold Cebrun.

A month later, Cebrun and Deputy Superintendent James Wallace were placed on administrative leave as rumors swirled about a possible romantic connection between Oakes, the 49-year-old widow of a former San Bernardino school principal, and Cebrun. It’s hard to say how much Cebrun was helped when school board President Joe Ayala defended him last Wednesday by saying if Cebrun had erred, “it’s because he fell into a web, (one) that many of us men fall into.” 

Cebrun denied any intimate relationship with Oakes, which was corroborated by an uncorroborated letter made public last Friday that purported to be a confession by Oakes. The sealed letter was allegedly given by Oakes, the day after her arrest, to a neighbor who works for the district, with instructions to convey it to Deputy Superintendent Wallace. It was to be read at a board meeting a week later, but it never got there.

Wallace said he received the letter, put it in a school district mailbox and never saw it again. Beau Yarbrough of the San Bernardino Sun said his newspaper got a copy of the letter, in which Oakes confesses all and says she acted alone. It specifically exonerates Cebrun in a passionate plea.

“I feel so bad knowing that the papers are using the crime that I committed to damage his reputation,” the letter reads. “But all of you must stop blaming Dr. Cebrun, let him continue to do his job, work with him, and I will have to face the consequences of my own actions.”

Oakes was charged with eight counts of embezzlement by a public or private officer and eight counts of a public officer crime. If convicted, she could face 11 years in prison. She has three children.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Rialto Accused Lunch Money Embezzler Charged (by Beau Yarbrough, San Bernardino Sun)

Suspected Rialto Lunch Money Embezzler, Judith Oakes, Allegedly Writes Confession  (by Beau Yarbrough and Joe Nelson, San Bernardino Sun)

Missing Lunch Money Probe Grows, May Top $3 Million, Police Say (by Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times)

Police: Rialto Unified’s Top Manager Cebrun Not a Suspect in Lunch-Money Theft (by Beau Yarbrough and  Joe Nelson, San Bernardino Sun)

Accountant May Have Embezzled $3M in Rialto Unified Lunch Money, Says Investigator (by Beau Yarbrough, San Bernardino Sun)

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