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She stole $500K from a Winston-Salem employer. Then she became a CEO and is accused of embezzling $15 million.
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She stole $500K from a Winston-Salem employer. Then she became a CEO and is accused of embezzling $15 million.

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Before Donna Osowitt Steele was charged with embezzling $15 million from TIGRA USA in Hickory, she pleaded guilty to embezzling from a family business in Winston-Salem in 1995.

Donna Osowitt Steele

Donna Osowitt Steele was charged with embezzling $15 million from the Hickory office of TIGRA USA.

“That girl, she’s evil,” Britt Perkins said. “She’s very slick.” Perkins is the current owner of AdSign Corporation in Winston-Salem. Steele worked there in 1994-95 when Jack Perkins was the owner. Britt Perkins is Jack's son.

Steele was hired at AdSign Corporation in October 1994 as an office manager. “I remember her as being very outgoing and assertive, like she was going to get things done. And she was believable,” Britt Perkins said.

During her six months with the company, Britt Perkins said Steele embezzled more than $500,000. He said she used the money to purchase a house, cars, extravagant trips and a Jet Ski.

“She claimed her parents were very wealthy and that was how she could afford all of the stuff she did,” he said.

Perkins said his father started the business in 1973. Jack Perkins died in May 2021.

“He would have been floored if he heard this (the latest charges). Maybe not surprised,” Britt Perkins said. “You look at what she did to him, maybe he wouldn’t have been that shocked.”

Perkins said the company was alerted to the embezzlement when the bank informed Jack Perkins about odd activity in the account.

“We were so blown away with what she did to us,” Perkins said.

Steele also was charged with fraudulent rental of motor vehicle in April of 1995, according to court documents.

“She just got really greedy really quickly,” Perkins said. “Fortunately, (AdSign) caught on to her. We are not a big company like this company in Hickory … we’re just a small little family business. We build and install lighted signs.”

According to Forsyth County court documents, Steele embezzled money at AdSign from Oct. 10, 1994 to March 31, 1995.

Steele pleaded guilty to the charges on Aug. 1, 1995. She was ordered to pay $270,131.89 in restitution. The judge also ordered that she pay 10% of the restitution the day of her sentencing. She did not produce the money, so Judge G.K. Butterfield sentenced her to serve at least 10 months in prison, according to the court documents.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety website, Steele was incarcerated from Aug. 1, 1995 until June 28, 1996.

The court documents state that Steele was suffering from a mental condition that was insufficient to constitute a defense but significantly reduced the defendant’s capability. “Defendant has had a mental breakdown and is unable to communicate with her attorney. Defendant has a long history of mental problems and at present cannot assist her attorney in the preparation of her case,” says a motion filed with court documents on Steele’s fraudulent rental of motor vehicle charge in Forsyth County.

Perkins was not satisfied with the sentence Steele received in 1995. “It was a slap on the wrist,” he said.

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“Hopefully karma is finally going to get her,” he said. “She needs to go away for a long time.”

A history of arrests, charges

Steele’s criminal record goes as far back as 1990 when she was first charged with embezzlement. Detailed court records of the case have since been destroyed, but a summary of the case is available at the Forsyth County Courthouse. Donna Steele was charged with embezzlement while living in Winston-Salem and arrested on Sept. 6, 1990. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of larceny.

District court records are destroyed after three years of  the case being resolved in court. Since Steele's 1995 embezzlement charge while employed by AdSign was a superior court case, those records were still available. 

In 1993, she faced eight worthless check charges in Forsyth County, according to the county court records. In 1994, she had 20 charges for worthless checks as well as two forgery charges in Forsyth. She also faced four charges for worthless checks in Yadkin County that year.

Along with the embezzlement charge in 1995, Steele also pleaded guilty to fraud involving a rental vehicle in Forsyth County in 1995, two counts of forgery in Forsyth County in 1994, two counts of worthless checks in Forsyth County in 1994, four counts of worthless checks in 1994 in Yadkin County, five counts of worthless checks in 1995 in Davie County, and four counts of worthless checks in 1995 in Forsyth County, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety website.

Steele to appear in federal court on Wednesday

Federal court documents indicated Steele defrauded an unnamed Hickory company of $15 million through credit card charges, checks, QuickBooks transactions and wire transactions from 2013 through January 2020.

Company president Bernd Motzer confirmed the unnamed company is TIGRA USA.

Steele was employed at the company in 1999 and was promoted to chief executive officer in 2015, federal court documents say. She was fired from the company on Jan. 28, 2020.

Court documents said she used stolen money to fund an extravagant lifestyle and a personal business, Opulence by Steele, in Taylorsville. The shop was operated by Steele and her family and once had a Hickory address, according to the store’s Facebook page. Opulence by Steele was a high-end clothing and furniture boutique Steele founded in 2013. She is accused of transferring more than $350,000 of embezzled money to the family company.

Documents: $500,000 for jewelry

According to the documents, some of the charges to company credit cards Steele made include $1 million for travel expenses on airlines and hotels for herself, her family and friends, $1 million in entertainment-related expenses and $500,000 in jewelry.

When credit card companies reached out to Steele about suspicious transactions, she would respond saying the transactions were approved, the documents said.

Court documents say the embezzlement was discovered after vendors began withholding products from TIGRA because of nonpayment or late payments, customers complaining about being placed on credit holds, employees having their company credit cards declined and employees not being paid on time.

Once Steele was fired, the company no longer had inventory problems, company credit cards were not declined and there were no longer issues with employee payroll and insurance, according to the documents.

Motzer said he has since taken over as TIGRA USA’s acting CEO.

Steele, who lives in Alexander County, is scheduled to appear in federal court in Charlotte on Wednesday. She is expected to plead guilty and faces a possible sentence of 20 years in prison, Lia Bantavani with the U.S. Department of Justice said.

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