By Thomas Goldsmith
Laura Riddick did the crime and knows she has to do the time.
As it’s turned out, the former Wake County register of deeds’ 2018 guilty plea — to charges of embezzling nearly $1 million in public funds — means that she’s housed in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women at a historically tough time for the corrections system, not to mention for Riddick.
Approaching the two-year mark of a five-year sentence in the Raleigh prison, Riddick tested positive for COVID-19 in late April along with 90 other inmates. She’s assumed to have recovered from the disease according to guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During a telephone interview, Riddick talked about experiencing the coronavirus that infected her and 90 other inmates, about her crimes and what led to them, and about her regret over her betrayal of trust.
“I am so, so sorry,” she said. “I have caused so much pain and so much disappointment.
“I hurt so many people. I’ve hurt my husband and my daughter, my elderly parents, the people that believed in me for so many years.”
A politician and elected official since age 29, Riddick won election to the register of deeds post for six consecutive terms. The office meets the public’s needs for real estate documents, marriage licenses, birth and death records, and other legal documents. After Riddick pleaded guilty in 2018, it seemed as though her time in the public arena was over.
But first came controversy over her eligibility for the state pension in which she had been vested, then the filing of state legislation evidently aimed at her case, and most recently, attention to her as one of North Carolina’s highest-profile COVID-19 patients.
‘No distance is possible’
She knows that few in Wake County and across the state would hold sympathy toward her. But she agreed to shed some frank light on her COVID experiences and those of fellow inmates.
“No distance is possible now,” Riddick said of her living arrangements in the unairconditioned prison. “There are two dorms on each side of the building, and each dorm shares one bathroom. So our beds are less than three feet apart and we have a bunkmate.
“There’s somebody above you. Now they do have us sleeping in opposite directions but you’re still sharing one big locker, so there’s no way to avoid your bunkmate.”
Riddick, 53, a Republican, fell from grace in a manner rarely seen for a public official with a record of success and an annual salary of more than $140,000 She pocketed citizens’ cash from her office, day after day, year after year, until it reached a traceable figure of $926,615.
Riddick repaid that amount on the day of her plea agreement, Aug. 24, 2018.
“I think everybody that’s incarcerated knows that they are here because they made a bad choice, they made a bad decision, we all did,” she said. “We’re here for a reason. Punishment is necessary and in my case, I betrayed the public trust, so that’s a big deal. But you don’t want your sentence converted to a death sentence.”
John Bull, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said that 707 inmates out of about 31,000 in the prison system have contracted COVID-19. About 50 still have the virus, he said. Five have died, including Faye Brown, 67, one of Riddick’s dorm-mates at the women’s prison.
Who gets to go home?
On April 8, the ACLU of North Carolina — along with the state NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, four inmates and an inmate’s spouse — filed an emergency petition to force DPS to reduce the systemwide inmate population in light of the pandemic.
“North Carolina courts did not sentence thousands of people to suffer and potentially die from a pandemic,” Kristi Graunke, state ACLU legal director, said in a statement. “Numerous people who are incarcerated right now could be sent home to live safely with their families without posing a danger to the public.”
Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration announced other means for an earlier release of inmates with COVID-19 as the suit moved forward. None of the alternative means would apply to Riddick, whose projected release date of 2023 exceeds the range spelled out in state law, Bull said.
“I know of maybe 10 people from this camp that have been released and all of them are over 50 with underlying health conditions,” Riddick said. “But they had a release date for 2020.”
The submission of an April 2 letter from a doctor citing two heart conditions and her need for daily cardiac medication also failed to bring about her release.
“Her cardiac history places her at high risk for complications if she were to contract the prevalent COVID-19 viral illness which has been shown to affect not only the respiratory system, but also the heart,” Dr. Charles Wehbie of Chapel Hill wrote before Riddick tested positive.
A potentially lethal disease
Riddick’s family disagrees with the state’s decision to rely on the CDC assumption that patients recover when their fevers resolve with medication, when respiratory problems improve, and when 10 days or more have passed since the person’s symptoms were first seen.
COVID-19 can present in a wide variety of conditions.
“I started with a rash on both arms on April 16,” Riddick said. “I lost my smell and taste, and then shortly thereafter it just got worse — it’s a virus that keeps on giving.
“I had shortness of breath, migraines, terrible headaches and a lot of fatigue and chest pain,” she said. “It seems to be that most of the women who are struggling the most right now are over 50 with some underlying health condition.”
Said Bull, with DPS, “One of the things about this disease that as the world has discovered here is, yes, it can be it can be lethal for people with underlying medical conditions.” He also noted the relatively low numbers of North Carolina inmates who have died of COVID-19, compared to the number who have contracted it.
Recently released NCCIW inmate Lisa E. Taylor, 63, of Asheville, echoed RIddick’s concerns about the dangers posed by COVID-19 in the crowded prison. Taylor also contracted the disease near the end of a seven-year sentence as an habitual felon based on a string of arrests involving embezzlement, forgery and other crimes.
“It was just a bad thing,” Taylor said. “I said, ‘I’m going to die in prison.’
They just felt like we were inmates and we weren’t important.”
Riddick seems to find herself between the proverbial rock and hard place. She makes no bones, answering every question posed about her crimes and background. A psychologist’s assessment entered into evidence at her sentencing told of stress and anxiety, coupled with perennial money trouble in childhood, family disruption and sexual abuse that led her to a hoarding compulsion, but also to success at school and in government positions.
Troubled background cited
Clinical psychologist Charles Cooper wrote in part: “Her need to sequester money at stressful times historically rose to the level of a psychological compulsion. In her case, this means that when certain conditions are present, she feels that she must hoard money to prevent what feels to her like terrible consequences.”
Mental health problems of untreated anxiety and depression, more recently addressed with medication, Riddick said, formed the root of her crime. She hopes to advocate for people with mental illness when she’s released.
“I’ve never been in trouble before. I’ve never even had a speeding ticket, and I think the shock is, ‘How in the world did this happen? Why didn’t you do this?’ And people struggle with that,” Riddick said.
Some government officials and members of the public made plain their skepticism of her explanations, noting the duration and amounts of her embezzlement.
“I was certainly initially very surprised,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said of her reaction in 2017 when evidence of Riddick’s crimes surfaced. “I think like a lot of people who worked with her and knew her and supported her within the community, I was devastated to know that she had betrayed her position in that way.”
Public criticism of Riddick’s actions reached a peak of sorts after she sued to regain her pension, withheld by State Treasurer Dale Folwell. Her petition called Folwell’s action unconstitutional, as well as cruel and unusual.
In the legal trenches
In response, her successor as register of deeds, Charles Gilliam, made a public statement, declaring: “The only thing excessive is the amount of money she stole, the only thing unusual is the leniency of her plea-bargained sentence, and the only thing remotely cruel is the harm she continues to inflict on the people of our State.”
Judge Paul Ridgeway, of North Carolina Superior Court, 10th Judicial District, sentenced Riddick to the low range for the crime, he said, based on the nonviolent nature of the crime and her prior clean record.
Judge Bob Orr, a former associate justice on the state Supreme Court, represents Riddick in civil actions regarding the pension. Riddick and husband Matthew Eisley maintain that she made contributions toward her pension during 29 years in state government and should be receiving a portion of it.
“The courts have consistently said that retirement benefits are simply deferred compensation, in which the retiree has a property right,” Orr said. “It’s not like bonus money. It’s compensation you earned, but it’s deferred as to when you get it.”
Asked about the situation of inmates during a pandemic, Orr offered a measured personal response.
“This is just not a group that anybody feels sorry for,” he said “‘You shouldn’t have committed the crime and if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have been there.’
“But that didn’t mean that we as a society don’t have some responsibility, because just the confinement itself and restitution is pretty substantial,” he said. “Being imprisoned for a crime doesn’t mean that your health should be jeopardized by that imprisonment.”
Voices in the discussion
Laura Riddick on inmates being told in late April they were COVID-19-positive: “The warden came down with her staff; it was just complete utter chaos. They didn’t expect that many numbers, I think, because we did have some people who had it but weren’t displaying their symptoms. And then there were some people that were really, really sick. Three women passed out in the dining hall at once, one woman was vomiting all over the dining hall, and then two others passed out. And the sergeant and her staff were helping everyone. They were very heroic because that’s really beyond their job description, to put themselves at risk like that.”
Wake County District Attorney General Lorrin Freeman on Riddick’s COVID-19 infection: “Certainly we don’t want anyone to be infected with COVID-19. It can be a serious virus, especially for someone who has underlying health conditions, which she does. At the same time, the possibility for infection remains in the community, and just as in the community, the prison system does have medical treatment. And if at some point, the medical treatment within the prisons is not sufficient, the prison system will have additional tools to treat her.”
Attorney Bob Orr on Riddick’s pension claim: “It’s all based upon what does the law say, what does the statute say. We’ve also raised constitutional questions: Can the government constitutionally deprive somebody of their benefits?”
Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull on practices at the women’s prison: “That dormitory is under medical quarantine and nobody mixes with any other dorms. They go to chow together, they go to rec time together, they go to pill call together. They don’t mix with other offenders. Anybody who shows symptoms is tested. If they test positive they move into medical isolation. There is plenty of PPE, and every offender and every staff member at every facility has a face mask.”