When federal investigators called the home of Rosetta White late last year, White was so glad to hear from them, she burst into tears. She had secretly been wishing for years they would call.
For 35 years, White carried a heavy burden she longed to cast off. For 35 years, after her father died, she continued to get his government retirement checks in the mail. For 35 years, she signed her father’s name and kept the money.
Finally, the call came.
“I was glad. I was happy (when I got caught),” she said after pleading guilty Friday morning in federal court to one count of forging endorsements on Treasury checks. “I got peace. There’s no excuse for what I did. Wrong is wrong.”
White agreed to be liable for the total face value of the checks - $61,260. She could face up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, though federal authorities said privately they believe the penalties will be significantly less.
White’s father died in 1961 when she was 20. Her mother had died six years earlier. Alone, disabled and afraid, she said at first she needed the $29 check that came every month.
Later, it wasn’t the money, she said. She had a family by then and she was afraid of what might happen. She kept hoping the checks would stop coming. But every month, here came another. Over the years, the amount grew to more than $200. The guilt grew as well.
When she got caught, White said, “the tears were rolling I was so relieved. I knew there were dark days ahead for me but I was smiling.”
Judge Henry Morgan tried to slow White down Friday, explaining her right to plead not guilty and explaining that she was giving up all rights of appeal by pleading guilty.
White, now 55, would have none of it. “But I’m guilty of those charges,” she protested in court.
White, who has an eighth-grade education, said she began signing her father’s civil service annuity checks long before he died. After he became sick, she cared for him and handled many of his affairs. After he died, she said, she just kept on signing.
Her father, Richard Sylvester Carter, retired in 1950 from Langley Air Force Base where he had worked as an Air Force laborer for eight years. He died in Richmond, Va. in March 1961.
Through a bureaucratic glitch, it took 35 years before the government realized he was dead.
White said she would prefer not to talk about her disabilities, though she appeared in a wheelchair in court Friday. “I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” she said. “I can’t. There are no excuses. What I did was wrong.
After her father died, White said, “Wouldn’t nobody hire me to work. Back then you didn’t get no whole lot of money and food stamps. Back then, during that time I didn’t have nobody to turn to … Now there are more laws under disability to protect people like me.”
Then, as the years went by, she had so much more to lose, she said.
“When you’re scared, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t do it for greediness. It was out of fear and love for the children. I didn’t want to have to leave them. They are wonderful honest children.”
White said the hardest part was telling her children what she had done. She declined to talk about her children, to “keep them out of it.”
“They’ve never been in any trouble a day of their lives,” she said. “You’re living a double life. Then they moved out and one day you’ve got to explain to them. It was hard. It really was.”