A federal judge agreed Wednesday to spare a woman prison time after she admitted hiring a company to illegally chop down trees on national forest land at Lake Tahoe.
Instead, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Sandoval accepted a plea agreement that ordered Patricia Vincent, 57, Incline Village, to do 80 hours of community service and pay $100,000 restitution, most of it to a nonprofit forestry organization.
The judge said he believed Vincent had been embarrassed and humiliated by the publicity of the case.
"I do think you learned your lesson in this case and it was a very hard lesson," Sandoval told Vincent at a sentencing hearing.
"I think there may be some out there who would think you were able to walk away from this case just by writing a check, but you've done more than that," he said.
The judge also sentenced Vincent to one year probation, but immediately suspended the probation because she's already paid restitution and completed community service.
"The $100,000 is punitive. That's a large amount of money," Sandoval said.
Vincent, who has no previous criminal history, hired a tree-cutting company last April to fell three 80- to 100-year-old Ponderosa pines on Forest Service land next to her property to improve her view of the lake.
Since then, she has "suffered emotionally from the negative publicity and has no further plans to stay in the Lake Tahoe area," said Scott Freeman, her Reno lawyer who asked the judge to "take into consideration the embarrassment and humiliation she has suffered by way of this case."
"Sometimes, that type of personal exposure in the court of public opinion works as an incredible deterrent from future negative conduct," he said.
Vincent was indicted in January by a federal grand jury in Reno on felony charges of theft of government property and willingly damaging government property. She faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of those original counts if convicted.
In exchange for her guilty plea last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow agreed to drop felony charges and charge her with one misdemeanor count of unlawfully cutting trees on U.S. land. That crime carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison.
Rachow said under the plea agreement, Vincent had to serve the 80 hours of community service and pay the restitution - $35,000 to the U.S. Forest Service and $65,000 to the National Forest Foundation.
Freeman acknowledged the sentencing was "unusual" because "the defendant is not a typical criminal violator." He said when he first explained the potential penalties Vincent faced he was met with "hysterical tears."
"You really can't beat her up any more than she's beat herself up. She's in this situation and it's tearing her up. She's absolutely petrified today being before you," he told the judge and said Vincent was "too nervous" to make a statement.
"Every step of the way she has been extremely remorseful, "Freeman said. "And I don't want you to have the impression this is a rich family who is snubbing their nose at the system and that it was easy to come up with that money. It wasn't."
Rachow said cutting the trees was no accident and it resulted in about a $50,000 increase in the value of Vincent's lot where she built a multimillion-dollar "trophy home."
"This was a serious crime. This wasn't someone who went out in the woods and cut firewood without a permit. This was a woman who was educated, who lived in the community a number of years," he said. But he also acknowledged "this is not an entirely wealthy woman like those down on Lake Shore Drive where estates are $15 million or $20 million or $30 million."
The sentence "sends a message to not only her, but other people in the community that if this is going on - and it has - it's time to stop," Rachow said.