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Ex-salesman, office manager of local ad agency stand accused of embezzlement, conspiracy

If Bill Morrill was hoping for satisfaction -- some kind of closure, maybe, or at least an acknowledgement that he had been wronged -- he would be disappointed.

Morrill, a salesman for Eureka Television Group and host of Fox 29's popular "101 Milestones" feature, made sure to be there in Humboldt County Superior Court last Monday as his former business associate Jeff Lang was arraigned on charges of embezzlement and conspiracy. Morrill attended the hearing with Christian Pennington and Bruce McFarland -- ex-employee and ex-owner, respectively, of the now-bankrupt advertising agency Lang was accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from.

Lang and his partner, Marcie Wright, both of whom were arrested in October following a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the Eureka Police Department, entered pleas of not guilty.

"It sucked," Morrill later reflected. "It was like, they didn't even blink an eye. They wouldn't even look at me or Christian or Bruce."

But last Monday was just the first chapter in what is bound to be a colorful trial, given the number of local businesses and local media outlets allegedly burned by Lang and Wright during a money-grabbing spree in 2006-07 -- starting, most tragically, with their employer. Lang was an Adcom sales representative and Wright its office manager at the time, and according to court documents the two are being charged with forging company checks, maxing out company credit cards and wiring money out of company accounts to place into their own. By the time the alleged embezzlement frenzy was over, Adcom was mortally wounded.

In addition, a police affidavit charges Lang with convincing at least one advertising client to write checks to him, personally, rather than the agency. Their money, which was supposed to pay media outlets such as Morrill's to run advertisements, appears never to have arrived at its intended destination. (Though only one such case makes it into the police affidavit, Lang's alleged practice was apparently much more widespread. The Journal was left holding the bag on a small amount of unpaid bills, according to sales manager Mike Herring, and has a judgment from small claims court stating that Lang owes the paper some $4,000.)

In the wake of last Monday's arraignment -- and in advance of a preliminary hearing scheduled for Jan. 5 -- not many of Lang and Wright's acquaintances or alleged victims seem interested in speaking about the case. McFarland did not return a call seeking comment. Neither did a couple of Lang and Wright's former Adcom coworkers. Likewise, executives at the Sacramento News & Review, where Lang has worked since at least April 2009 -- as recently as last week, he was listed as the weekly newspaper's sales director -- didn't return multiple calls.

One person associated with the case who certainly didn't mind talking about it was Eureka Police Detective Ron Prose, who last week expressed great sympathy for the torment that McFarland, especially, was put through.

"He's a true victim," Prose said.

Prose's affidavit, which was filed with the court in support of obtaining arrest warrants for Lang and Wright, describes the results of his investigation. He writes that Bruce McFarland first contacted the EPD about the matter in May 2008 -- over a year after he learned of the matter himself.

Back in March 2007, according to Prose's affidavit, McFarland's bank called to inform him about a $60,000 overrun on his company credit card. When he confronted Wright, his office manager, about the matter, Lang offered to buy the company from him if he agreed not to report the matter to police. McFarland agreed, but the Lang's money never materialized and the company went out of business. At that point, McFarland went to the cops and Prose began digging through bank accounts.

He ended up finding hundreds of checks forged from company accounts, dating from between January 2006 and August 2007. Around 120 forged checks in that period were written out to Jeff Lang, for a total of $113,000. Thirty-two of them -- totaling about $23,000 -- were written to Marcie Wright. Still others were written out to children of the two, and another was written out to the Humboldt Bay Rowing Association, of which Wright's daughter was a member.

At the time, according to the affidavit, Marcie Wright had control of the company's banking software and checking accounts, but only McFarland and his accountant had the authority to sign checks.

But the money that Lang and Wright allegedly embezzled directly from their employer may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Meredith Biasca of Don's Rent-All -- one of Adcom and Lang's clients -- said Tuesday that she had worked with the man for years, and found him very charming and smooth. She said that even though friends had warned her about dealing with Lang, she initially found no reason to distrust him -- even after he started insisting that she make out her checks for advertising payment to him, personally, rather than to the company. Lang had told her that he would soon be taking over the company, she recalled, and didn't wish to mix his business with McFarland's.

To this day, Biasca said, she's not sure who was being scammed -- her company, media outlets or some combination of the two. She was mostly upset about the abuse of her trust. She said she had mixed feelings about the possibility of Lang and Wright doing jail time, if they are convicted.

"I hate to see anyone go down the tubes like that, but he screwed a lot of people," she said.

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Hank Sims

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