Those sums were among the $1 million Birge stole from the court over an eight-year period from children who had lost their parents, the elderly or physically injured or mentally handicapped, attorney Brent Savage told a Chatham County State Court jury empaneled to hear the civil case.
Included among those victims were several people who lost their husbands and fathers in the Feb. 8, 2008, fire and explosion at the Savannah Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth that killed 14 and injured dozens more.
But attorney Walter Ballew, who represents Birge, told the jurors that people who knew Birge were “shocked by her conduct” which he blamed on opioid and gambling addictions that spun out of control.
If you were going to steal, Ballew told jurors, “You don’t keep it, and you don’t tell anybody.”
Testimony begins May 14 before visiting Senior State Court Judge Orin Douglass and the jury.
Federal court conviction
Birge, 64, was not in court. She remains incarcerated in a federal prison in West Virginia where she is serving a six-year term after pleading guilty in federal court on July 31, 2015, to stealing $232,000 from the Probate Court as part of a scheme in which the government said she stole more than $750,000 over a three-year period.
She also was ordered to make restitution of more than $750,000 for her admission to stealing $232,000 from the Probate Court. As part of the plea to the mail fraud count, prosecutors dismissed the remaining counts in the indictment.
U.S. District Judge William T. Moore, Jr., said 36 victims suffered actual losses, adding that none of the funds ever belonged to the court. He set the actual restitution in the case at $751,715.95.
Chatham County officials contend Birge stole $890,000 from individuals and another $113,000 from Chatham County.
Then Probate Judge Harris Lewis placed Birge on investigative suspension without pay Nov. 20, 2014, during a probe of “discrepancies ” in the court. She was fired on Dec. 2, 2014.
Civil court opening statements
Savage, using a series of enlarged exhibits, told jurors that the case was not about whether Birge stole the money or how much, but about damages for pain and suffering after victims found out the money was gone from the court, punitive damages to punish and deter past and future conduct and attorney’s fees.
He said the largest sum taken from his clients was $236,384 from Matthew Drayton, then age 9, whose mother died of a heart attack.
“She pockets it and it’s their money,” he told jurors.
With that money, Birge traveled to Las Vegas 10 times; Florida, at least 50 times; and Biloxi, Mississippi.
And, he added, Birge put her residence in a trust to herself in 2010.
He said the first knowledge of Birge’s activities was in 2008 when she stole $190,000 from the estate of a man.
When she was asked on deposition if she had abused the office of chief clerk, Savage said she responded, “Those are your words... I will have to think about it.’”
Savage told jurors the case would be completed in two days, but that it has taken five years to get to this point.
The veteran of 37 years with the court was the “primary breadwinner” for her family who suffered from her own health issues that required pain killers that, over time, she became addicted to, Ballew said.
She was also a “pathological gambler” whose “life began to spiral downward.”
Birge was writing checks for $2,900 payable to cash more than 200 times, some two times a day. “No reasonable person can think they are going to get away with that,” Ballew said. “She’s been punished. She is sorry, very sorry.”
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Attorney tells jury Kim Birge stole more than $1 million from Savannah victims