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Raw emotions emerge at Birkels’ sentencing

Debra Birkel1 / 2
Gregory Birkel2 / 2

Intrafamily sparks flew last week at the sentencing for two people accused of stealing funds from a former Ellsworth police chief and his wife while the retired couple lived in a nursing home.

Pierce County District Court Judge Joseph Boles on Thursday sentenced Chippewa Falls resident Debra Birkel, the daughter of former Ellsworth police Chief Ron Miller, to 28 days in Pierce County jail and 92 days on house arrest. She and her husband, Gregory Birkel, pleaded no contest to felony theft charges at the hearing.

“These guys wrecked my folks’ lives,” Eddie Miller, son of Ron Miller and brother to Debra Birkel, said during the victim­ impact­ statement portion of the hearing.

He and two of his brothers described in detail during the hearing years of alleged financial abuses inflicted by their sister and brother­-in-­law on their parents. Eddie Miller thundered away at the Birkels during his statement, saying his father protected and served the Ellsworth community for 40 years.

“And the sad thing is, we couldn’t protect him,” he said, alluding to claims that the Birkels wiped out tens of thousands from the Millers’ retirement funds.

The sentence calls for a deferred judgment that allows the felonies to be wiped from the Birkels’ records if they successfully complete terms of the deal, which include restitution payments.  

Boles sentenced Debra Birkel to the jail time for a related misdemeanor theft conviction.

During her statement to the judge, she rejected claims made by her brothers and said she dedicated her life to caring for her father in his later years. Ron Miller died in June 2013; Jeanne Miller died in January 2014.

“I did everything under my power to make him comfortable,” Debra Birkel said of her father while fighting back tears.

She told Boles she would “love to start my life fresh,” adding that she was “chased out of town” following what she called abusive local news headlines.

Boles said the jail sentence was motivated, in part, by what he described as a lack of regret and remorse on Debra Birkel’s part. He said that “really bothers me.”

“I really didn’t hear anything from the heart,” Boles told her.

Still, Boles did not accept Pierce County Assistant District Attorney Rory O’Sullivan’s request to have Debra Miller taken to jail that day for a six-­month stay. Boles called that request “excessive,” saying felony convictions often don’t receive such a sentence, let alone for first-offense misdemeanors.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Boles said to the courtroom, before specifically addressing the Miller brothers. “You feel wronged. I recognize that.”

Charges were filed against the Birkels in September 2013, following a Pepin County investigation that was launched after Ron Miller discovered he didn’t have money in his fund to buy his wife flowers for Valentine’s Day.

Investigators learned the Birkels had received power of attorney rights for the Millers, giving the Birkels control of finances.

According to a criminal complaint, Debra Birkel’s purchases went beyond the scope of her power of attorney authority that limited her to spend funds on the Millers’ mortgage, taxes, household items and expenses at the Pepin Manor nursing home. The funds were deposited into an account from Ron Miller’s veterans benefits and state retirement funds.

The complaint details thousands of dollars in purchases made from the account, including cash withdrawals and retail purchases at sporting goods, clothing and grocery stores. Investigators listed a total of more than $33,000 in purchases allegedly made in violation of the power of attorney agreement made between July 2012 and March 2013.

Part of the plea agreement reached with the Birkels requires them to repay funds to the Miller family trust. Attorneys for both sides expected the final amount to be determined in time for a May 6 restitution hearing.