Theft of $2.7M over 7 years nets lengthy prison term for Edmonton bookkeeper

Francis Mella, 61, will serve six years and 10 months after he was convicted of fraud and theft. For seven years, he stole from Dave's Diesel Repair, in Parkland County, west of Edmonton.

'He had a penthouse that I was paying for. He had a BMW. He had several businesses,' victim says

Francis Mella in a photo posted on Facebook in April 2020, one month before he was deported from Belize. (Francis Mella/Facebook)

For seven years, Francis Mella regularly stole from the company he was tasked with running financially.

Between 2008 and 2014, Mella transferred $2.7 million from Dave's Diesel Repair — in Parkland County, west of Edmonton — to his own accounts, all the while pretending to be a close friend of the owner.

"I trusted the guy with everything," Dave Szybunka told CBC News. "I was guilty of giving him a position of authority. Because I trusted him." 

In October, Mella, 61, was found guilty of fraud and theft in Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench. Last week, Justice Robert Graesser sentenced Mella to 10 years in prison.

The sentence was reduced to six years, 10 months to reflect a number of factors, including the time he has already served.

Szybunka feels vindicated, even though it's been a long, tortuous road to get to this point. 

"Well, he got what he deserved, right?" Szybunka said. "But it's over. I'm happy that he was charged. He was found guilty. It doesn't matter what the sentence is."

The two men were strangers in 2008 when Szybunka hired Mella as a part-time accountant and bookkeeper. Szybunka had no interest in financial management and gave Mella almost total control of that side of the business. 

Almost immediately, Mella began siphoning off funds. He set up four fake electronic payees that linked to his personal credit cards and a Telpay account that linked to his personal bank account. 

At first, the transfers were relatively small, but they grew in size and frequency when he continued to get away with the thefts.

Mella made 352 illegal transfers between 2008 and 2014. He stole $784,117.05 in 2013 alone. 

Forensic accountants called in

By 2014, Dave's Diesel Repair was in financial trouble.

"When the business appeared to be failing and needed funds to stay in operation, Mr. Szybunka cashed in RRSPs and injected the proceeds into the business," Graesser wrote.
Dave Szybunka, 60, behind the desk at Dave's Diesel Repair in Parkland County west of Edmonton. (Submitted by Dave Szybunka)

Mella stole that money too. 

"The most telling aspect of the case was Mr. Mella's greed and complete disregard for Mr. Szybunka," the judge wrote. "There was no evidence of any motive other than greed."

Szybunka called in forensic accountants to review bank statements and company books. 

Right away, they identified the electronic transfers to the four fake accounts. Before Szybunka could have the accounts shut down, Mella stole tens of thousands of dollars more before deleting them himself.

Mella skipped the country 

Szybunka launched a civil action against Mella. Ultimately, Mella agreed to repay $2.3 million, but by that time, Mella said he had little left of the embezzled funds, thanks in part to his extravagant lifestyle. 

"He had a penthouse that I was paying for," Szybunka said. "He had a BMW. He had several businesses he was involved with. He lost everything."

Szybunka eventually reported the crimes to police. Mella was scheduled to go to trial in April 2019, but in late 2018 or early 2019, he fled to Belize.

While in Belize, Mella tried to extort Szybunka out of $350,000 by threatening to publish information about him on a website. Szybunka ignored the threat. 

Mella was eventually deported to Canada and was arrested in May 2020 when he landed. 

Last week, Justice Robert Graesser, pictured here, sentenced Mella to 10 years in prison, which was reduced to six years, 10 months. (Alberta Court of Queen's Bench)

When the case got to trial last October, Mella took the stand in his own defence. He told the judge that the transfer of funds was done so Szybunka could pay his ex-wife less in a divorce settlement.

The judge didn't buy it. 

"Mr. Mella was neither a believable or reliable witness," Graesser wrote. "Mr. Mella would be a danger to any employer who might choose to hire him in a position where he could steal from that employer."

Graesser ordered Mella to pay $2.5 million in restitution to Dave's Diesel Repair, but noted the debt may never be paid. 

"From a moral perspective, he should spend the rest of his life working hard to repay the debt," Graesser wrote.

"He has accepted no responsibility yet and has shown no remorse. He has not accounted for the stolen funds other than in a general way. He may have squirreled away some of the money."

The judge also imposed a $125,000 fine in lieu of forfeiture that Mella will be given 10 years to pay once he's released from prison. 

Szybunka, 60, has managed to hold on to his business. In his victim impact statement, he bitterly suggested he'd have to work until he is 80 because of the financial hole. 

"My life's very difficult," he told CBC News. "I will die before I have everything bought and paid for."

But, he added, "I'm okay with that."


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston was an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father.