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Title company owner sentenced in fraud driven by gambling habit

The owner of Metro East Title Co. today was sentenced to prison for embezzling escrow funds from clients.

Karen Strasser Steinke, 65, of Millstadt, was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment followed by three years supervised release as a result of her convictions for wire fraud in a scheme to defraud clients of Metro East Title, and structuring of financial transactions to avoid currency transaction reporting requirements, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, Stephen R. Wigginton, said today.

Restitution was made in full to the victims prior to the sentencing.

Steinke was an officer, owner and operator of Metro East Title Co. She received money on behalf of others that included escrow, settlement and closing funds. Steinke was required to hold these funds in a fiduciary trust account. Around July 16, 2013, two individuals, identified as R. L. and M. L., purchased real property in St. Clair County, and Metro East served as the settlement agent for the transaction.

As part of the transaction, the proceeds paid were to be used to satisfy a mortgage against the real property for $76,864.98 held by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. Some $84,109.57 of purchase funds were deposited into Metro East’s escrow account. The fiduciary funds were said to be misused by Steinke.

On or about Aug. 7, 2013, Metro East served as a settlement and escrow agent pursuant to an escrow disbursement agreement in connection with a real property transaction between the Columbia American Legion, Columbia Post 581 District 22, American Legion Department of Illinois, which acted as the seller to the transaction, and the City of Columbia, the buyer. The City of Columbia deposited $407,960.04 into the escrow account of Metro East, which was to serve as the source for the ultimate escrow and settlement disbursals however the fiduciary funds were misused by Steinke.

There was evidence that Steinke embezzled the funds to support a gambling habit. Karen Steinke structured the deposit of cash into bank accounts to replenish part of the money that she had taken to attempt to avoid detection, Wigginton said.

The successful prosecution is the result of an investigation conducted by the Internal Revenue Service with the assistance of the Columbia Police Department. The prosecution was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Norman R. Smith.

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