A grandmother behind bars for embezzling nearly half a million dollars from her employer says gambling cost her her job, her 28-year marriage and six years of her life.

Judy Walker McCants pleaded guilty last week to four counts of embezzlement for transferring $408,228 from Easco Tool Co. to her personal account. The 48-year-old Cramerton resident was sentenced to six years in prison Monday.In 1986, a year before she began to bilk her employer, McCants had discovered a compulsive habit.

``I didn't know I was a gambler at first,' she said. ``I started playing video games and soon found out that there were some places that would pay you money to win at them.'

It was at those illegal gambling houses, which McCants would not name, that she developed a penchant for poker machines.

Most machines took $20 bills, so it was easy to spend a lot in a short period of time, she said.

McCants, who worked as Easco's payroll clerk, would write vacation checks for employees, forge their name and authorize the checks with her own signature.

``There was really no one to answer to in the office,' McCants said from the Gaston County Jail. ``The staff was so small and I authorized all the payroll checks myself.'

Throughout 1986, McCants tapped into hers and her husband's savings account.

``He knew I played the machines but had no idea of the magnitude,' McCants said.

``And he never looked at our account. I handled the money. He trusted me.'

By 1987, McCants had depleted her family savings and moved on to Easco's funds, dipping into the company's purse for $14,700 that year.

Her habit reached its peak in 1988, when Easco lost $181,620 to McCants' forays.

But Easco, the company's auditors, and even state auditors never caught her.

``All the checks and bank statements always matched,' she said. ``There was never any discrepancy and the audits weren't very detailed.'

Bank tellers never caught wind, either.

``They never knew, because I'd visit different branches of the bank to make my deposits,' she said.

McCants gambled for two more years, drawing $176,900 from her employer in 1989 and $35,008 in 1990, before the law caught up with her last spring. Her account withdrawals didn't match her deposits.

``It was a relief,' she said. ``It was if someone had lifted a load off my shoulders.'

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