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A jury found Michelle Marie Backowski, 62, Little Falls, not guilty on felony charges of check forgery and theft by swindle, Monday, in Morrison County District Court.

Backowski was accused of embezzling nearly $280,000 from a former employer between January 2012 and March 2019. The charges were filed by the Stearns County Attorneys Office in April 2019, after an investigation conducted by the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office.

The investigation and prosecution was handled by Stearns County to avoid a perceived conflict of interest, as Backowski’s husband was an employee of Morrison County at the time.

“I met Michelle for the first time in April 2019,” said William J. Mauzy of Mauzy Law, PA, who represented Backowski in her defense. “After spending a couple of hours talking to her, I was convinced that she was innocent.”

The trial lasted five days and was presided over by Morrison County District Court Judge Leonard Weiler. It wrapped up with closing arguments, Monday. Mauzy said the jury deliberated for “a couple of hours” before returning with the verdict of not guilty.

In the initial complaint, the owner of Auto Max Sales & Service LLC in Little Falls Township alleged Backowski had been issuing checks to herself from the business in the amount of $550 every week since January 2012.

In her testimony during the trial, Backowski said she had indeed cashed a check for $550 at Pine Country Bank every week. However, she said she gave those funds to her boss. Mauzy said he denied receiving that money.

“We were able to establish cash expenses by Mr. (Duane) Doble, and the state was unable to show specific expenditures for those funds,” Mauzy said.

He said her defense was also able to produce witnesses who offered testimony regarding both Backowski’s family and her husband’s family. Both of their parents had given “substantial” amounts of money to the couple that had been deposited into their bank accounts.

Mauzy said they introduced into evidence bank statements that showed withdrawals from Backowski’s father in law’s bank account, for example, in amounts that matched amounts that were deposited into one of she and/or her husband’s accounts shortly after. He said Backowski’s son also lived at home for five years and paid rent to his parents.

“They were the type of people who had some money and they wanted to distribute it while they were still living,” Mauzy said of both her parents and in-laws. “The jury felt that we were able to establish that, although she did deposit cash, there was a reasonable explanation for it.”

He said, though the defense was only allowed two character witnesses, they had a “long list” of people who were willing to testify to Backowski’s character and her truthfulness. Through several places of employment over the years, he said Backowski had no history of wrongdoing of any kind.

Mauzy said Backowski had a strong support system of family and friends who believed in her innocence throughout, from the time charges were filed and all the way through the trial.

He said one story that stuck out to him, in particular, was what happened when a former employer heard about the charges against Backowski. She had previously worked for Falls Furniture, and when the owner of that business read about the case in the Morrison County Record, she called and offered Backowski a job, according to Mauzy.

“To me, that spoke volumes about the person she is,” he said. “That really was important to me, and I think the jury was listening and felt the same way.”

He described it as an “intense” trial, with a lot of complicated pieces to it. He said there were 270 exhibits introduced into evidence, some of which were 20 pages worth of financial statements and eight years of check registers.

Mauzy said when it came time for Backowski to testify on her own behalf, she was “terrified.” However, he was proud of her and felt she handled herself well on the witness stand.

“She came across as the person she is,” he said. “There’s nothing artificial about her.

“I was very gratified by the acquittal,” he added. “This whole ordeal has been a nightmare for her, and now she can move along without this dark shadow following her. I think the jury saw, correctly, that she was not the type of person who would steal all of that money over a such a long period of time.”

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