By Sam Hemingway
Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
BURLINGTON, Vt. - The former chief financial officer for Southern Vermont College in Bennington, who resigned earlier this month amid allegations he embezzled at least $440,000, was found dead at his home Wednesday night, the Vermont State Police said Thursday.
"I can confirm that James Beckwith, 58, died from what looks like a self-inflicted gunshot wound," Col. Tom L'Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, told the Burlington Free Press on Thursday afternoon.
A subsequent statement released by the authorities said police found Beckwith's body at his home in South Londonderry on Wednesday evening when troopers responded to a report of a possible missing person.
"No foul play is suspected," the statement said.
An autopsy and toxicology testing is to take place at the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Burlington, state police said. An investigation into the death is ongoing, police added.
News of the embezzlement claims against Beckwith, and then of his death, spread across the campus of the small liberal-arts college as the day unfolded. The school in far southwestern Vermont, near the Massachusetts and New York borders, has about 550 students, according to its website.
Beckwith had served as the college's acting president while its full-time leader, Karen Gross, was on a yearlong leave of absence to serve as a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.
Gross, who returned to her post in late January, met with staff and faculty Thursday afternoon and was planning to meet with students at 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss what had happened.
"They are remarkably cohesive and committed to ensuring our students have the best possible education as we work through this difficult time," she said of the faculty and staff.
Beckwith left the school Feb. 3 after he was confronted by the college's attorney about "suspicious financial transactions involving purported vendor payments" in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, according to a civil forfeiture action filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington by Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Waples.
A subsequent investigation found that Beckwith directed college officials to issue three checks totaling $440,000 to the Merrill Lynch financial management firm in late 2012 and early 2013 to settle legal claims involving a failed dormitory construction project that, it turned out, didn't exist.
The civil forfeiture complaint was filed in court shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday, about five hours before police were called to Beckwith's home and discovered his body.
Beckwith was not facing criminal charges at the time of his death, but a criminal investigation into his conduct was ongoing, Waples said.
According to an FBI agent's affidavit filed with the court, Beckwith manufactured paperwork to justify having the college make out checks payable to Merrill Lynch that he purportedly would then use to settle the claims.
Instead, Beckwith deposited the $440,000 in his personal account with Merrill Lynch and used $260,000 to pay down a mortgage and home-equity loan on South Londonderry home.
Beckwith, in an interview with the Bennington Banner shortly after his resignation, did not indicate the reasons he was stepping down.
"It's just a natural transition. There's no reason behind it," he told the newspaper. "I've been there seven years, and it was just time to move on, that's all."
Beckwith, a lawyer by training, also taught mathematics and statistics at the college. Beckwith's biographical sketch was removed from the Southern Vermont College website following his resignation.
Gross, who had recruited Beckwith in 2007 to be the college's chief financial officer and its chief operating officer, said she hoped he would be remembered for the contributions he had made to the college.
"This is a difficult, sad time for all of us who knew Jim," she said.
Burlington (Vt.) Free Press