Former sheriff’s department lieutenant gets jail time in embezzlement case

Published 1:28 pm Monday, January 23, 2023

NILES — A former Berrien County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant was sentenced to jail Monday in Berrien County Trial Court. Trent Michael Babcock pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false pretenses $200 to $1,000 for his actions as a coach with a Niles youth wrestling club. 

Babcock, 47, of Niles, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge back in November and was sentenced Monday to 30 days in Allegan County Jail, two years probation, $2,445 in fines and costs and $4,800 in restitution. A restitution hearing will be held to contest the remaining $6,464.31 in restitution being asked for. 

Babcock cannot receive or handle any money except in connection with his own business. 

The embezzlement from the Niles Wrestling Club occurred over several years dating back to 2017. An investigation into Babcock’s actions began last March. He was initially charged with three felony counts of embezzlement $1,000 to $20,000 which were dismissed as part of the plea agreement. 

Police found a total of 36 unexplained transactions from 2017 to 2022 totaling over $11,000, according to the police report. Transactions listed in the police report included purchases of auto parts, fuel, equipment rentals and cash withdrawals. 

Babcock, then a 18-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, was charged with retail fraud in 2017 for shoplifting items from the Niles Wal-Mart when he was a Berrien County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant. He pleaded to a misdemeanor retail fraud count and was ordered to pay fines and costs. He was fired from the sheriff’s department at that time. 

Two very different views of Babcock’s actions were presented in remarks before Berrien County Trial Judge Jennifer Smith’s sentencing. 

Assistant Prosecutor Kate Arnold said Babcock took the money parents paid to have their children in the club and converted it to his own use. 

“It’s plain to see that he was using the club’s money as his personal piggy bank,” she said. 

“I’ve seen a lot of despicable actions in court and this type of offense less often, but it’s no less heinous,” she added. “He was taking money intended to get kids involved in sports and learn about teamwork and that is completely despicable. He was filtering money from the club for his own personal gain and he’s shown no remorse.” 

Defense attorney Lanny Fisher said Babcock took over the coaching for the club after the previous coach left. He noted that his client put in over 1,000 hours of his time to the club every year and was not given a salary or reimbursed for his time or travel to wrestling meets. 

He said that the club had no charter or board of governance he could appeal to in order to get compensation. 

“Unfortunately there was no one to run his actions by and get approval,” Fisher said. “All the kids got the benefit of the club and no one lost anything.” 

“He should have gotten permission from somebody before he used the money,” he acknowledged. “He’s fine with paying $4,800 today.” 

Babcock apologized to the prosecutor and to the court. He reiterated Fisher’s statement that no kid missed out on participating in the club or going to tournaments because of his actions. 

Judge Smith said Babcock “may have done some good things” but told him that the club’s money wasn’t there free for the taking. 

“You don’t get to dip into the funds whenever you feel like it,” she said. “This was a not for profit organization and they can pay a salary but it all needed to be above board.” 

“I’m not saying you were not entitled to compensation for your time, but the parents thought it would be run like it was in the past,” she added. “If you felt you were entitled to money, the parents needed to know … There’s a difference in saying that parents would be paying a portion to you as a coach and just taking it.” 

The judge noted that Babcock’s damaged the reputation of the Niles schools’ wrestling program even if the school district isn’t formally associated with the club. 

“You’ve also damaged the trust of the parents and kids are now going to other places to wrestle,” she said. “They deserve to be able to be in their home area.” 

Judge Smith said she sentenced Babcock to jail to send a message and refused to consider Fisher’s request for tether given the nature of the organization Babcock took funds from. 

“It’s important to send a message to the community which has seen other embezzlement cases,” she said.