Georgia accountant defrauded an elderly client, feds say

An elderly woman with dementia had about $800,000 stolen by her accountant in Atlanta over the course of 10 years, prosecutors say.

Now, the accountant awaits sentencing.

Heidi Royal, 52, worked at an Atlanta-based wealth management firm as the accounting manager and bill-pay supervisor and the unidentified woman’s accountant, according to a news release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia. The firm — which officials did not identify — reportedly provided investment advice and financial services to an elderly widow suffering from dementia.

Royal pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, which prosecutors say took place between 2010 and 2021.

“Royal exploited the trust placed in her by an elderly client who was unable to manage her own affairs,” U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine said in the release.

According to court documents, Royal had access to the woman’s Social Security number, as well as usernames and passwords of bank accounts. As part of her duties at the firm, prosecutors say, Royal provided professional accounting services and bill-pay.

Over the years, Royal was said to have developed a close friendship with the woman and even told a coworker that she was like “a grandmother to her,” court documents show.

Yet, starting from about June 2010, prosecutors say Royal stole the victim’s annuity payments, wrote more than 200 fraudulent checks, withdrew cash from the woman’s bank accounts and made electronic payments to herself from the client’s accounts using PayPal.

She’s also accused of impersonating the woman in phone conversations with financial institutions, and using the victim’s name and Social Security number to open a Bank of America account to disguise the alleged fraud.

Royal wrote checks to herself and others, prosecutors say, and withdrew cash from that account.

“It is very disheartening that Royal manipulated a vulnerable victim and stole much of her hard-earned savings after claiming to be a close friend that was supposed to have her best interests in mind,” Philip Wislar, acting special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta, said in the release.

In mid-March 2021, when the firm learned of Royal’s alleged fraudulent scheme, it immediately fired Royal and reported the crime to law enforcement, the release states.

Royal initially denied the allegations and falsely claimed the woman promised to pay her “no less than $1,000 a month and no more than $5,000 a month,” plus expenses, prosecutors say.

On Feb. 14, Royal pleaded guilty on both counts.

E. Jay Abt, Royal’s defense attorney, declined a request to comment from McClatchy News.

Her sentencing is scheduled for May 31, according to the release.

Cassandre Coyer is a McClatchy National Real-Time Reporter covering the southeast while based in Washington D.C. She’s an alumna of Emerson College in Boston and joined McClatchy in 2022. Previously, she’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, RVA Mag, The Untitled Magazine, and more.

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