For the two decades she’d been working at the West Rome Animal Clinic, first as a receptionist and later as a practice manager, Meleah Landers was falsifying financial records for her own gain to the eventual tune of nearly half a million dollars.

As she stood up prior to sentencing, she told Floyd County Superior Court Chief Judge Jack Niedrach that she tried to keep a log of her thefts, so she could one day pay them back.

“I’m ashamed to be here. This has been eating me alive for a long time,” she said.

She said she’d been taken in by the clinic’s owner Dan Pate and treated like family. The clinic had paid for the education needed so she could take on her, now former, role of practice manager.

During the entire time, she was stealing massive amounts of funds from the clinic and cooking the books to cover it up.

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation audit determined that at some point she began to put small amounts of money back on the books. She said it was to pay back some of the debt.

But at that same time she kept stealing larger amounts of the clinic’s funds. She then covered the thefts up, leading the clinic and those she likened to family into massive debt.

Prosecutors said in the past seven years she stole a quarter of a million dollars;.all told the loss to the clinic was likely much, much larger.

“Evidence has come to light that this crime has gone on for over two decades,” Rome Circuit Assistant District Attorney Leah Mayo said. “Ms. Landers said she treated (Pate) like a father; she treated him like an ATM.”

Estimating the amount of money she was stealing on top of her salary, she was bringing more money home than the doctors at the clinic.

“For 20 years my staff was under the impression that Ms. Landers was a hardworking employee that loved the West Rome Animal Clinic,” Pate told the court. “It turns out Ms. Landers stole so much the clinic couldn’t pay its bills.”

Describing Landers as a narcissist, a chameleon, liar and a thief, Pate said the amount she stole will continue to affect him and his family for the rest of their lives. His retirement plans have been delayed, if not destroyed, and the veterinary business — which should have been profitable — is continuing to have difficulty.

“People will rarely buy a business that is losing and in debt,” he said. “Even though Ms. Landers found the money to hire four lawyers, I have yet to see a cent.”

Once he began to realize the depth and breadth of the thefts, she approached her former boss and offered to pay $20,000 for him not file criminal charges. On top of that, she also asked Pate for a job recommendation.

Asking for the judge to sentence her to serve a maximum sentence, Pate said “Ms. Landers failed to take responsibility.”

Niedrach sentenced Landers to five years in prison and another 15 on probation. As part of that sentence she is ordered to repay $440,469.38 in restitution.

As part of that restitution, Niedrach ordered that $123,699.42 from her father’s estate held in a separate civil case concerning the thefts be paid to Pate within 30 days.

Pate’s attorney in that civil case, Chris Twyman, said it is still in the exploratory stages but expects a resolution will come more quickly with the criminal conviction and restitution determination.

Landers will also have to begin paying $500 a month restitution 60 days after her release from prison. The judge conceded that the amount may not reach the full amount of restitution, but said the sentence does not bar seeking the remainder as part of a civil action.

The judge also denied a request for Landers to be sentenced under the First Offender’s Act, which would wipe away her criminal conviction after the completion of her sentence.

“Any future employers should be aware of the circumstances of this case,” Niedrach said.

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