Rachel Yould, the former Miss Anchorage, Fulbright and Rhodes Scholar who fraudulently obtained three-quarters of a million dollars to finance her high-flying academic career was sentenced last Friday to 57 months in the penitentiary. The riveting tale of Ms. Yould's life, crime and sentencing reads like a mystery novel as I wrote on Bad Lawyer, last week. This is reporter Lisa Demer's terrific follow-up story:
Yould, 38, pleaded guilty in June to 15 federal felony charges laid out in two indictments: 10 mail fraud counts, one wire fraud count and four charges of making false statements to a bank. In all she took out more than $679,000 in student loans, federal prosecutors said. They say about $403,000 went for noneducational expenses. Her deceits began after she ran up against her lifetime limits on subsidized loans, they say.
Despite her guilty pleas, Yould has maintained she is innocent and contends that her troubles arose from her efforts to escape her abusive biological father. She secured a second Social Security number to hide from him and says she received bad information from the government on how to use that new number.
But assistant U.S. Attorney Retta-Rae Randall said Yould deceived financial sources and academic institutions with "fraud, lies and manipulation." Over the 2 1/2-day sentencing hearing, Randall presented information showing that Yould used fabricated pay stubs and W-2 statements to support student loan applications. She co-signed for some of the loans using her old Social Security number and former name, Rachel Hall. She forged letters from her academic sponsor at Keio University in Japan. To secure more loans, she used the name and Social Security number of her husband, Brett Yould, who sat through the hearing in the front row. He said later that the extent of the fraud surprised him.
Prosecutors argued for a prison sentence of six years. 'Her greed is not about money,' Randall told the judge. 'Her greed is about connections and influence.'
Federal public defender Rich Curtner argued that Yould had an impeccable record before the fraud charges. She helped AIDS patients. She volunteered for Mother Teresa in India. She had a brilliant academic history. He argued that she has much more to give and shouldn't go to prison at all.
Curtner said he and Yould will discuss whether to appeal the sentence.
The judge said it was clear Yould, who has many supporters, had done much good in her life. But he also said she got caught up in her own vision of herself. 'I think what really happened is that Ms. Yould became enamored of the idea that she could have a prominent role, have great stature in the international academic community,' Sedwick said in sentencing her. 'Indeed, she already had it. But she wanted to keep it. She wanted to pursue it. She wanted to embellish it. She wanted to make it better.'
And she committed fraud in her pursuit of that goal, the judge said.
He directed her to begin her prison sentence immediately.
She surrendered to U.S. marshals at the close of the hearing, after she had a few last minutes with family, friends and supporters. They lined up to say goodbye. 'Who's next?' Yould asked, smiling. She gave big hugs to them all, telling one advocate 'you're so good.'
Yould's case became a cause celebre among domestic-violence advocates. Her sentencing hearing, a sort of mini-trial, drew backers from Anchorage and all around the country. There was a court blogger from San Francisco, a supporter from Minnesota, an advocate from Hawaii, who testified at the sentencing.
Her supporters say she is one of many women who have encountered problems with the Social Security program intended to protect victims by allowing them to create a new identity. Anchorage-based STAR, or Standing Together Against Rape, included a call to action in an internal newsletter for staff and volunteers urging advocates to 'pack the courthouse' at Yould's sentencing. STAR mainly wanted to show support for Yould's 'safety plan,' which included escorts and other measures to protect her from her abuser, who they believe still presents a risk, said program director Keeley Olson.
Her family sat in the front row behind the defense table, including her husband and mother-in-law, her retired schoolteacher mother and stepfather, who adopted her as an adult. An uncle came from Alabama. In all, more than a couple dozen supporters showed up for Yould.
After the hearing, Brett Yould said Rachel 'has a lot of problems, stemming directly from serious, serious abuse.' That's no excuse for what she did, he said. 'She is very troubled. Our entire relationship -- I spent a lot of time trying to support her emotionally. It's been a long and hard road, it really has.' He said he cares for her and wanted to give her support during such a rough time. But he said he told her about six months ago that no matter how the court case resolved, he would seek a divorce. 'This whole thing is just sort of more chaos, and Rachel's life has always been chaotic like this,' Brett Yould said. 'I've always been asked to step in and save her at the last minute on many occasions. And I can't do that anymore.' He said he's certain Rachel was subjected to years of abuse and torture 'at the hands of a madman. Her biological father.' Her father has never been charged with violence against her, but Rachel Yould has said in court papers that he abused her sexually, physically and emotionally through her childhood and into adulthood.
She's spent her adult life trying to overcome deep feelings of inadequacy, Brett Yould said.
A NEW IDENTITY
Prosecutor Randall told the judge that Yould committed a 'sophisticated, international fraud. You can't fathom why someone with all those advantages ends up at this dead end,' the prosecutor said. 'She has no moral compass.'
What really offends prosecutors, Randall told the judge, is how Yould blamed her troubles on the federal program through which some 14,000 women and children have secured new Social Security numbers to hide from abusers and stalkers. Victims who could benefit may instead fear the program because of Yould's assertions that she was just following the guidance of unnamed Social Security field officers. If someone is trying to hide from an abuser, why include the old Social Security number on a loan form along with the new one? Randall said. 'How much damage has she done to that program?' Randall asked.
When Yould was given a turn to speak, she answered that 'we follow these instructions not because they make sense but because we believe in the authority of the information the government provides us and because we fear for our lives.'
Sedwick said he never doubted that Yould had the right to a second Social Security number. But for Yould, with all her smarts, to blame federal bureaucrats 'borders on the ludicrous,' the judge said. Sedwick said defendants usually stand before him with only a lawyer on their side. No family. No friends. No advocates from around the world. 'There is much to be said for the proposition that Ms. Yould is a conniving and manipulative person,' Sedwick said. 'Certainly her behavior suggests that this is true. On the other hand it's clear there's more to her than that. One needs only observe how many friends and supporters she has had by her side throughout this sentencing hearing to realize the picture painted by the government is too severe.'
Yould said she regrets what happened and is saddened for any hardships to others. But she never said she did wrong. 'The violence and stalking I've suffered are not actually the hardest experiences I've endured,' Yould said, speaking in a clear, confident voice. 'The most difficult thing for me is the isolation brought on by living a life that most people seem unable to relate to or understand. It's a very lonely experience.'"
As I said before, Rachel Yould may well be a conniving and manipulative fraudster, but where did she learn the behavior, and why? My sense is that this is a very damaged woman with a history of child sexual abuse. I hope that the next couple of years enables her a degree of recovery and peace.
She needs to get honest with herself and others as a first step to recovery.