She’d go back to prison if it would erase her $7.6M debt

Christine Hendrickson stole expensive software from Microsoft. She’ll never pay off the restitution.

BOTHELL — Christine Hendrickson never knew the scale of her crime.

As she flipped through old charging papers last week, she was shocked to see the numbers.

In the early 2000s, she and three co-workers took tens of millions of dollars in software from Microsoft, where they were employed, then sold it to people across the country for their personal profit.

Nearly 20 years later, Hendrickson still owes $7.4 million in restitution to a company now worth over a trillion dollars, for stealing software that’s long outdated.

Now in her late 40s, she said she’ll never pay it off, barring incredible circumstances. It’s effectively a lifelong sentence.

The stress seeps into her daily life.

She avoids checking the mail, and she’s long stopped bothering to answer the phone, in fear that the courts are coming to collect.

Job searches have become obstacle courses of explaining her felony history. And when she is working, her checks can be subject to garnishment.

Romantic relationships are few and far between and seem like far-fetched fantasies. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would marry a girl with $7 million in restitution,” she said.

If she does get married, questions will lurk about how her spouse’s finances would be affected. Same goes for her parents’ estate when they pass away. And forget about getting a house in her name; she’s afraid to just own a car. If something has a dollar symbol attached to it, she has to assess: Will it get taken by the court system?

She admits that she’s lapsed on her payments in the past, which are supposed to comprise no less than 10 percent of her paycheck. In the past, she was paying a couple-hundred per month, but at that rate it would take three millennia to pay off. It’s pointless, she said, but she does wonder what will happen if the U.S. government ever decides to collect.

Despite everything, Hendrickson has managed to turn her life around. Formerly addicted to methamphetamine and heroin, she celebrated seven years of sobriety in June. She’s found a passion, and a job as a writer. And she’s found a new hobby and meaning in fitness.

Sometimes though, she said, she feels like she’s been set up to fail.

“I just find it a little sad, that justice is like me being ridiculously poor,” she said. “If I could go back to prison right now for five years, even 10 years, and not have that debt, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

Under the U.S. Mandatory Restitution Act of 1996, federal judges have little to no discretion when ordering restitution. According to the law, a person convicted of theft must either return the property or, failing that, pay the value of it at the time it was stolen.

As of 2016, there was more than $110 billion in outstanding federal restitution payments, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — much of that due to people being unable to pay. As a result, there is some skepticism about whether the restitution helps either victims seeking compensation, or convicts trying for rehabilitation.

In a paper published in the California Law Review, attorney Matthew Dickman wondered if the pressure of paying impossibly high restitution leads convicts to commit new crimes. At least, he wrote, having an unpayable debt hinders their ability to reintegrate into society. He suggested that judges should have at least some flexibility in assigning payments.

Nick Allen, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, has dedicated a lot of his work to the subject of fees and fines in Washington’s court systems, which have a similar approach to the federal system. He believes that courts should be able to revisit and reassess restitution orders.

“The conviction never goes away is really the problem,” he said. “One of the things I always hear about in regards to the court (is that) one of the goals is finality. This does not allow for finality.”

He also said there could be more conversation about instances where a person with few means owes money to a large corporation. The dynamic is very different in cases involving two parties of similar economic levels, he said.

Hendrickson started stealing software from Microsoft in 2001, not long after she was hired. She didn’t know what she was stealing. She just knew it was easy money, and that she needed money to feed her drug addiction.

“Still to this day I don’t know anything about that type of product,” she said. “Unfortunately it was really expensive.”

There were three others in on the scheme: Finn Contini, Robert Howdeshell and Alyson Clark.

Contini, the ringleader, apparently kept Hendrickson in the dark. Hendrickson didn’t make any of the sales herself, and she didn’t talk to anyone else involved, according to court documents. She didn’t know the other two were part of the deal, even though she considered Clark a friend.

As a group assistant, Hendrickson had access to a program called the Internal Product Ordering Service. It allowed her to request any Microsoft product she wanted, without cost. All she had to do to circumvent the security measures was input her email address in place of the supervisor’s.

She wasn’t a brilliant computer hacker, she said.

“The internal ordering system was so trusting, it was so easy to do what we were doing,” she said.

The software would show up at addresses tied to Contini, who would then sell it to connections in Oregon and Maryland.

Hendrickson was prolific when it came to ordering products, but she only saw a share of the sales. U.S. attorneys estimated that she received at least $250,000, according to the sentencing memorandum. The four co-workers sold nearly 9,000 products with an estimated retail value of $32.4 million.

For Hendrickson, it was a lot of money. It mostly went toward drugs, designer clothes and a new vehicle, she said. But mostly drugs.

The scheme unraveled in 2002. Hendrickson believes that the company was tipped off to their scheme when they were looking into another employee, in another department, carrying out a similar plot.

She was called into an office, asked a few questions and was abruptly fired. She endured being escorted off the campus by corporate security, one of the most embarrassing moments in her life.

The money she made didn’t last long after that.

“I, unfortunately, with the lifestyle I was in, with all the drugs I was buying, I was surrounded by other drug addicts and all they wanted to do was steal from me,” she said.

“I had not a single friend. … If I fell asleep in my house, they would take jewelry, cash — whatever they could find in my house, they would walk out with it.”

She loaned a drug dealer $10,000, and paid $50,000 for bail for the girlfriend of another drug dealer. She never got any of it back. Someone stole her car and crashed it.

Soon, she was homeless.

And then, in November 2004, charges were filed. She was staying at a friend’s apartment at the time.

“(My drug dealer) called and told me that I had been on the news,” she said. “I ran (to the grocery store) to see if I was in the newspaper like he said. And I was.”

Detectives had little trouble tracking Hendrickson down. She was on public assistance, she said, and she put the address for her friend’s apartment down when she applied for food stamps. She wasn’t really trying to hide, she said.

In September 2005, she was sentenced to five months in prison and probation for conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Incarceration, along with her participation in drug treatment programs, is what finally got her sober, she said. She’s almost thankful for the time.

The worst part is what came after, she said.

Hendrickson admitted not getting along with her probation officer, who, in a blog post, she called a “self-guided missile, seeking to destroy everything I worked for.” Even though Hendrickson did well in classes at a Seattle vocational school and got a two-year scholarship, she said the probation officer didn’t allow her to pursue educational opportunities. Instead, it was stressed that getting a job was more important, so she could pay off the restitution.

But career opportunities weren’t plentiful for a felon with a long employment gap and no higher education. Hendrickson doesn’t know how many times her application was thrown out because she had to divulge her criminal history.

At the interview for her first job out of prison, Hendrickson recalled wearing pants in an attempt to hide the bulky home-monitoring bracelet wrapped around her leg. “It was definitely not the prettiest accessory I have worn,” she admitted.

She was applying to be an administrative assistant for a fencing company in South Seattle. She figured she didn’t have a chance, but, somehow, they were understanding, she said.

Then the probation officer, “like an angel of doom,” swooped in, she said. The probation officer had seen her at the office, handling a credit card, and told Hendrickson that she needed to tell her bosses in detail what her crime was.

Hendrickson was mortified. Again, somehow, her employers were understanding, she said. She kept the job until she was eventually laid off.

“It was three years of that,” Hendrickson said of her time in probation. Every move she made, every use of her money was scrutinized, at a time when she was learning how to be sober and stable again.

Still, she made it through without a single violation.

These days, Hendrickson lives in a condo, in her parents’ name, north of Bothell. There’s no art on her walls, nor is there furniture in her living room. Instead, decorating her home are certificates for community service from local organizations, a weight bench and dumbbells — substitutes for the drugs and symbols of recovery.

Hendrickson said she is proud of who she is now. Through the years she’s scraped together jobs as a writer, first as a reporter for the Monroe Monitor, and now as a content producer for the city of Kirkland. She volunteers for a local VFW chapter, too.

Sometimes, reminders of her past leak into her new life.

In March, Hendrickson opened her seldom-opened mailbox to find a month-old letter from Snohomish County Superior Court, threatening garnishment.

She owed restitution for a different crime she committed during the same period when she worked at Microsoft. She was convicted of trying to cash a stolen check, according to court records. The arrest affidavit suggest that she owed a drug dealer money.

She can hardly remember doing it. She was addicted to drugs at the time and was a “walking felony,” she said.

Hendrickson can recall the sentencing hearing, though. The judge had seen the previous order to pay $7.4 million. She believes she remembers him giving a short laugh, saying something like “I’ve seen worse” and “This is not a free ride,” and then ordered her to pay more than $6,000 in restitution.

With 12 percent interest, that number has only grown, pushing near $10,000.

Her past haunted her once again. At first she said she was anxious. Then she got mad. She had worked so hard to become a better person, she said, and the letter felt like an admonishment.

Hendrickson said she paid off the past due balance and is now keeping up with the monthly fees.

She said she’s started making small payments toward her federal restitution, as well. In an essay posted on her blog, however, she wondered what the point was of being ordered to pay such a large amount.

“I’ve heard from countless government officials that the overall goal is to remove us from the ‘system.’ To help addicts like me become contributing members of society,” she wrote. “If that truly is the goal, why make it so relentlessly impossible?”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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