Embezzler who stole rent from low-income tenants fights restitution

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A former employee of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission convicted of stealing rent checks is fighting the amount of restitution she was ordered to pay.

Esther Cecilia McMurray, 52 of Grand Rapids, pleaded guilty in July 2020 to embezzlement from a nonprofit.

Kent County prosecutors said McMurray stole rent payments in the form of checks and money orders from 20 to 30 residents of subsidized housing complexes over three and a half years.  

The offense dates stretched from December 2015 to May 2019.

It’s not clear why it took the Grand Rapids Housing Commission that long to identify the embezzlement.

Now, McMurray is arguing she shouldn’t have to pay the $20,627 in restitution because she returned to the housing commission a portion of the money she stole.

Thursday’s hearing on McMurray’s restitution was postponed so key witnesses could attend.

VICTIM: GO WITH YOUR FIRST INSTINCT

Meanwhile, one of McMurray’s victims is speaking out.

“Because it happened to me, it could happen to someone else,” said Tachianna Walton in an interview with News 8. “If you have a gut feeling something is wrong, go with your first instinct. Be firm. Be smart. Fully investigate the situation.”

Walton, who still lives with her daughter at Campau Commons, said she had to go to court several times for non-payment of rent despite having submitted payment.

“I felt like (the Housing Commission) should have listened to me when I kept telling them, ‘hey, there’s something wrong. I did pay you a money order. I don’t know where it’s at, but I do have proof that I paid you my rent,'” said Walton, who showed News 8 several money order stubs indicating they’d been received.

Walton said she handed several rent payments to Esther McMurray, who worked in the office at Campau Commons at the time.

“It took a toll on me. It was stressful,” said Walton about the theft of her rent payments.

“My daughter would ask me, ‘are we going to get evicted because you’re behind?’ I’m like, ‘nope, don’t worry about it, Mommy’s got it,'” recalled Walton, who said the housing commission ultimately did not try to evict her.

“They’re like, ‘we don’t want to evict you, we’re going to work with you the best we can.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, but something is wrong here. Something is going on. Somebody is stealing my money orders.'”

A single mother, Walton said she was already struggling to pay the bills with the money she made at her manufacturing job.  

She believes the housing commission should have caught the embezzlement earlier.

Robert S. Womack, a Kent County Commissioner, radio personality and relative of Walton, agreed.

“I’m very unsettled and troubled by having women come to me and say that they had to repay their rent, that they struggled, that someone was stealing from them who was working in the housing commission,” said Womack, who wanted the victims to be reimbursed in full.

Lindsey Reames, the new executive director of the Grand Rapids Housing Commission, told News 8 there was little she could say due to the ongoing court case.

Reames did say that — to her knowledge — the housing commission had made the impacted residents whole.

She also said the commission made changes to policies and procedures to prevent such crimes from happening again.

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