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Former Merickel Lumber employee charged with high-level theft

Brenda Rae Bakken, 56, Wadena, was charged with two felony counts of theft Friday in Wadena County.

The charges accuse Bakken of knowingly stealing funds from customers of Merickel Lumber in Wadena over a period of June 2016 - Dec. 2018. The property value stolen was more than $35,000 for both the theft and theft by swindle charges, making these the most severe level of theft charges by Minnesota law. Court records show an amount of over $67,000 was reported unaccountable at Merickel Lumber. Staff there continue to complete auditing, which could yield further theft, according to office manager Melissa Seelhammer. She hoped those audits may be complete in the next few weeks.

According to the court complaint against Bakken, discrepancies in customer charges led to an internal investigation at Merickel Lumber. Those erroneous charges were isolated to accounts handled by Bakken. Bakken was employed at Merickel Lumber from June 2014 - Dec. 2018.

According to court records, Bakken left work at Merickel Lumber Dec. 31, 2018. About that same time, a customer notified staff at Merickel Lumber of an account balance they felt was incorrect.

Upon further investigation, Seelhammer said the charges were isolated to a small number of customers, but all linked back to Bakken. She added that the discrepancies were manipulated in ways that were not easily detected.

"Their payment amounts were not matching the amounts posted on their accounts here," Jason Merickel, vice president at Merickel Lumber said of the case.

Merickel said they've put together a full scale audit internally and any discrepancies they discover, they've been paying back to the customers.

"Luckily of the hundreds of accounts we have here, this is isolated to only a few accounts," Merickel said.

He added that what they've found is that this theft is traced to one dishonest employee, who is no longer working at Merickel Lumber, and they are diligently working to correct the acts against customers and the business.

"Honesty and integrity are part of our core values here and we have been working hard to get this matter resolved with our customers in a timely fashion," Merickel said.

In an interview with Wadena Police, which was also part of the court records, Bakken reportedly showed remorse and offered to pay back everything after being confronted with the accusations. She also reportedly sent a message to Seelhammer on March 11 stating she was sorry and that she felt she had paid back what she took.

Seelhammmer and Merickel stated that Bakken has not personally paid back any amount as of April 8.

The charges against the defendant, felony theft and felony theft by swindle, each have a maximum sentence of 20 years and/or $100,000 fine. Bakken's first appearance is set for May.

Bakken could not be reached for further comment.