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Man sentenced to year in prison after bilking niece of $80,000

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A California man convicted of bilking more than $80,000 from his niece while she was in his care has been sentenced to a year in prison.

Jim Aiken, 44, was handed a four-year sentence Monday by Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Jane Kauvar, but three years will be suspended if Aiken can stick to a decade-long restitution plan.

Aiken returned to Fairbanks from San Francisco to become legal guardian of Brienne Barnes, now 15, after her parents died in a 1997 murder-suicide.

Barnes had a large amount of money from life insurance, state benefits and a violent crime victim's organization when her uncle began taking care of her. When Barnes' guardianship was changed after three years, the girl was left with a little over $100 in one account and 21-cents in another.

Aiken was found guilty in November of one count of first-degree theft.

He addressed the court at length Monday, saying any misuse of the cash had been a mistake but not a crime.

''The money I spent, I spent on getting the house together,'' Aiken said. ''I did my best to keep the house in good repair and to provide Brienne with a home. ... I spent more money than I should have spent doing that.''

Prosecuting attorney Gene Gustafson requested Aiken be given an eight-year prison sentence with four suspended, as well as be ordered to pay over $82,000 in restitution.

He argued that the nature of the victim, as well as the fact that her savings were completely drained, called for a harsh sentence.

Defense attorney Rob Lowrey asked for a lesser sentence because there was no proof of criminal intent.

''There is no evidence this was calculated, there is no evidence this was a malicious act,'' he said. ''Mr. Aiken took on a responsibility that he should not have. ... He did what he thought he had to do.''

Arnold Brown, a member of the jury that found Aiken guilty, told the judge about the difficulty the panel encountered in reaching a decision.

''Mr. Aiken is as much a victim in this as anyone else,'' he said at the sentencing hearing, explaining his belief that Aiken had noble intentions but was unable to carry them out.

''He went into this with no parenting skills. ... He never managed this kind of money,'' Brown said. ''The man did fail miserably, he admitted that. He didn't do this with any malicious intent.''

According to Brown, the only criminal act the jury unanimously attributed to Aiken was his falsifying court documents in order to give the illusion the money had been invested rather than spent.

Brown was followed to the witness stand by Joyce Parks, the child's current guardian, and by Barnes herself. Both expressed indignation at the idea of Aiken being considered any sort of victim.

''He was fully aware of what he was doing,'' Parks said. ''I'm just really disgusted and ashamed he has done this to a child.''

Kauvar's sentence centered on the proposed restitution. ''The real goal of this sentencing is to get the money back for Brienne,'' she said to Aiken. ''I don't think putting you in jail for four years will accomplish anything.''

Kauvar said she saw the situation as a failure of the custody system as much as that of any individual.

''The system didn't protect Brienne better, and I think that's unfortunate,'' she said. ''There should have been safeguards in place to keep Mr. Liken from doing what he did.''



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