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Former Hempfield nurse sentenced for theft after fleeing to Middle East

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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

A registered nurse who lived on the lam in the Middle Eastern city of Dubai after being charged with embezzling from her employer returned to a Westmoreland County courtroom on Tuesday to plead guilty to theft charges.

Patricia Keller, 64, formerly of Hempfield, told Judge Rita Hathaway that her life spun out of control when her husband died, which led her to forge checks and steal about $250,000 over six years from Dr. Andrew Stroh and his Tri-County Occupation Medicine practice in Youngwood.

Keller worked as a nurse and office manager for Stroh.

“I am really sorry. He put a lot of trust in me, and I let him down,” Keller said.

Hathaway sentenced Keller to terms of a negotiated plea bargain that requires her to serve three to seven years in prison and seven years on probation.

She was ordered to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution to Stroh and his insurance company. As a condition of her probation, Hathaway ordered Keller to pay $1,000 a month from her Social Security benefits toward restitution once she is released from prison.

Stroh said he discovered the thefts in 2009 when he found delinquent payment notices on Keller's desk. She eventually was fired and charged with counts of theft and forgery.Police said she forged 62 checks starting in 2003.

Police said Keller stole the money to pay for shopping trips and vacations to Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Aruba and Mexico.

“At this point, my sentence is ongoing,” Stroh said. “She was a person I trusted very much.”

Keller was listed as a fugitive after she failed to appear for a court hearing on Feb. 4, 2011.

Assistant District Attorney Pete Flanigan said with help from the immigration officials, the State Department and Interpol, Keller was tracked through the use of her passport.

Authorities followed her trail through Canada to Russia and eventually to the United Arab Emirates, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

Officials confirmed Keller's presence in Dubai when former coworkers found pictures of her on Facebook that depicted her in her new country and working at a local preschool.

Flanigan said officials in Dubai took Keller into custody for an immigration violation and sent her back to the United States, where she was arrested in July on warrants pertaining to the Westmoreland County case.

“I think she believed she was untouchable and would come back to the U.S. on her terms. I have no doubt she thought she was smarter than everyone else and, fortunately, that was not the case,” Stroh said.

In addition to the theft charges, Keller pleaded guilty to fleeing the country to avoid prosecution.

Public defender John Sweeney said that much of the money Keller stole was used to pay expenses associated with her husband's illness. He said he had no information about Keller's trip to the Middle East.

“She certainly doesn't look like an international thief. I think she just got overwhelmed by her husband's illness,” Sweeney said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reachedat 724-830-6293

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