An ex-Marine accused of embezzling more than $133,000 from a Palm Desert-based Marine scholarship fund withdrew his guilty plea today as his sentencing hearing was getting under way.
Jason Patrick Hitt, 35, of Pomona, allegedly embezzled from U.S. Marine Scholarships of the Desert Cities Inc., a nonprofit that awards scholarships to current and former Marines in the area, while serving as the group's president.
He is also accused of forging a $6,000 check. Hitt pleaded guilty on March 8 as his preliminary hearing was scheduled to get under way at the Larson Justice Center in Indio.
He withdrew the guilty plea after Riverside County Superior Court Judge Harold W. Hopp said he was inclined to sentence the defendant to three years in state prison.
"I'm really concerned Mr. Hitt hasn't taken responsibility for what he did," Hopp said at the beginning of the sentencing hearing.
Defense attorney Laura Garcia said her client indicated to probation officers in an interview that he would "do whatever it takes to make amends."
"I think that shows his remorse," she said.
When Hopp, who said he had read the probation report and a letter from Hitt's spouse, indicated he would sentence Hitt to three years behind bars, the defendant withdrew his guilty plea.
"That's fine, the people are ready to proceed with the charges," said Deputy District Attorney Earl Roberts.
Terry Adrianson, who runs the scholarship arm of the U.S. Marine Scholarships of the Desert Cities, said outside court that she hopes the case will be tried by a jury.
"I hope there will be justice," she said.
Adrianson said 59 scholarship recipients have graduated, and 59 more are in schools around the country. Her husband Charles said they started the fund for Marines based in Twentynine Palms who came back from service.
Terry Adrianson said the fund's annual fundraising golf tournament was held last week.
Hitt is due back in court on Friday for a felony settlement conference, when a date is expected to be set for his preliminary hearing.
Hitt, who volunteered to be president of the group in 2009, initially was suspected of stealing about $200,000 from the fund, Riverside County sheriff's Sgt. Dave Florez said. He was arrested in Chino Hills on Oct. 6 at the Best Buy store where he worked.
Hitt allegedly wrote checks drawn on the scholarship fund's Citibank account to his then-girlfriend and co-mingled the funds with her business accounts, according to a declaration in support of arrest warrant. Eventually, Hitt started dating other women and allegedly spending the scholarship money on them.
At a meeting of the group's board, Hitt "stole one of the original USMS checks from the back of the USMS checkbook when (the board member) left the room for a moment," according to the document. "Hitt then forged (the board member's) signature on the check and deposited it to the Citibank account which
When the check did not clear, the bank began monitoring the account, then closed it. But Hitt "continued to drain (it) ... to a negative status," the document alleges.
A private investigator hired by Hitt's first girlfriend told the scholarship board something fishy was allegedly going on, according to the Sheriff's Department.