by Gentle Ben
What if you learned your mother was a criminal?
~ Preface ~
Sarah Prater was investigated for changing the records of deceased veterans, with no beneficiaries, to show them as living and as having beneficiares. The beneficiaries were not legitimate, but were always members of a small group of people who gave her kickbacks on the benefits they received. She admitted to the wrong doing, but has not given specifics on accountability for the eleven million dollars the FBI was able to determine was confiscated through the scam over a number of years.
Sarah Prater is my mother, and I was in shock upon first learning about this. She entered a guilty plea, and I wrote the following letter to reveal to her how I have responded to what she has done, and to try and facilitate visitation potential in the future. While the letter is to the judge who accepted her guilty plea, it was also given to my mother.
Please consider the letter from a literary perspective, and rate as such. It is a difficult subject, and many people must deal in some way with having a close relative perform criminal activities. From that perspective, I think this letter is worth while for some.
How you would respond if you found out your mother had committed major criminal acts?
~ Letter ~
September 23, 2002
U.S. District Court
Re: Sarah Prater - Sentencing
To The Honorable Judge Richard W. Jones:
This letter is written as a potential input for consideration in determining sentencing for Sarah A. Prater in the case involving her activity with the Veterans Affairs. I am her oldest son, and let me begin by stating that I do not believe my feelings for my mother should have any bearing on her sentence. If that were the case, I would beg for leniency based on my love for her. Instead, I merely offer some considerations I believe may help serve justice, with the exception of one minor personal request involving the location of her potential incarceration ... something I don’t think will impact the purpose of the sentence.
Apart from the one personal request I shall make, I offer three primary considerations for the court: her life, her service, and her generosity. The difficulties of Sarah’s life, the outstanding service she provided to the government and the community, and the numerous gifts she freely gave to those in need are a matter of record. If these aspects of Sarah’s life are worthy of consideration toward a lighter sentence, that is for the court to decide. I realize deterrence is also a factor ... and one I personally believe in. But I have no experience to address its effectiveness based on varying degrees of discipline. Instead, what I see is an elderly woman who has suffered through life, and has been both good and bad in her service to her country and her community.
Her Life. The first consideration I offer is Sarah’s life. To begin with, she has lived most of it and has a relatively small portion of it left. As a means of preventing her from a similar crime in the future, I can’t imagine the length of incarceration will mean much. As a means of retribution, she has already suffered in the past and, as a consequence of her recent activities, she has begun to suffer in the present. Her past includes the suicidal death of an alcoholic sister, a difficult divorce, an abusive second fiancé, and the murder of her third child. It took a fighter to lift herself from the pit of despair, start out as a file clerk at the VA, begin a new family, and work her way to a place of responsibility and respect. I’m certain she did none of this with the purpose to defraud. More than likely, an opportunity presented itself in which she made the wrong choice. And now, she has lost everything she ever worked for, except her children. Her life savings is gone; her ability to obtain substantial employment is minimized; her second husband has requested a divorce; few stand beside her in this time of need; and her health shows the anxiety she has brought on herself. I do not request sorrow for her, for she reaps what she has sown. But I suggest that her imprisonment entails more than walls and bars ... and had already begun even before her incarceration in June.
Her Service. Sarah’s advancement in the VA is evidence of her exemplary work for the government over many years. File clerks don’t achieve positions of great responsibility without faithful service and quality work. I believe Sarah helped many veterans and co-workers along her road to success. Her personnel records certainly bear witness to her outstanding achievements. This does not justify her actions, but it does show she did much more than take—she also gave. In addition, her service extends to the community as a volunteer soccer coach. Such a position is a labor of love for others and many sought her as a coach for their children because of what she gave in the effort.
Her Generosity. This love for others was further demonstrated by her giving. Though I don’t know how she reached a point of involvement in such a criminal activity, I know she often sought to help people she saw in need, even during the apparent timeframe of her criminal activity. For myself, of course, I realize the bias of being her son. Consider however, during some dark years of her life, I was a teenager under the care of others. It wasn’t until I left home for college that I sought to reestablish a relationship with my mother. Despite the fact that I had refused a visit with her three years prior, that I reminded her of the man she divorced, and that I brought my own problems into our relationship, she immediately sought to take me in and help me on my feet with work, room & board, and college funding. Since then, she has never refused my request for help—financial or otherwise. I have had difficulty asking, but she has assisted my immediate family with orthodontist work for two of my children, and with some home repairs (I have disclosed specifics to the FBI), and she helped me in other ways too numerous to expound in the confines of this letter.
Concerning her giving to others, my first hand knowledge is limited to hearing her speak about people in need and her efforts to help (spoken, I think, as an example to me). I’ve never doubted her generosity, but after things were revealed in August 2001, I began to hear from others of her giving to friends and co-workers. It appears there are several willing to tell of her generosity, and still more that appear to be afraid to share because, I believe, of the potential source of the funds they benefited from. I’ve also noticed how Sarah has endeavored to protect anyone she has ever associated with or assisted in some way. I do not know how much money my mother may have received from the criminal activity that has been investigated, but I know of no evidence of it in her home. In the last year, I have wondered how much money she actually gave away. Based on her giving nature, I would not be surprised to find that it was more than any of us have guessed.
I must conclude this last consideration by stating that I in no way condone obtaining funds by illegal means, even if such funds are distributed to “people in need.” The act is wrong. In addition, it carries with it unseen consequences that undoubtedly adversely affect OTHER “people in need.” I merely point out her generosity as a potential motive ... a motive different from that of someone seeking personal gain ... and perhaps the consequences should vary to some degree.
One Request. Having presented some personal observations ... considerations the court must do with as it deems best, I make one request. It is my hope Sarah will be incarcerated as close to “home” as possible. In particular, I live in xxxxx, GA and hope to visit her on occasion. While I do not condone her actions, I love her. I think it would be good for her children and grandchildren to visit her when possible. I have told my children as much as I know about what their grandmother has done. She provides them a lesson in consequences for wrong deeds, and a lesson in loving those who make mistakes. Personally, I hope she sees my love, and the love of Christ reaching out to her through me. Any consideration you give this request is greatly appreciated.
Thank you for your time in this matter.
~ Postscript ~
Sarah Prater was sentenced on December 3, 2002 to thirteen and a half years, lower than the twenty years expected. As of May 2003, she was placed in the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida. It is close enough for my family and I to visit and I was able to take my kids to see her within her first two weeks there. As for whether my letter served its purpose with the courts, I do not know. However, the letter did let my mother know I accept and love her. And I believe the Lord is working in her heart.
For those who wonder, yes, I was also angry, and still am, especially as a veteran myself. However, I worked very hard to remove those emotions from the above letter, and only provide love and support. This is also how I treated my mother during the time of her investigation. My emotional response is a separate story, though not yet written.