SALT LAKE CITY — All sides agreed Tuesday that the case against Matthew Dahl was a tough one.
On one hand, the man admitted to stealing more than $300,000 from This Is the Place Heritage Park. He took the money over the span of four years after he was brought in as executive director to handle the park's finances and "lined his pockets" to support a cattle-buying hobby, prosecutor Scott Romney said.
On the other hand, he was a first-time offender with no criminal record who had already liquidated his assets — including a 401(k) — to repay more than $100,000 of the stolen funds, defense attorney Rebecca Skordas said.
Lamenting this nation's "culture of incarceration," U.S. District Judge Dee Benson sentenced Dahl to six months in federal prison for one count of mail fraud. The prison time is to be followed by four years of supervised release in which the man is not to hold any jobs with fiduciary responsibilities.
"This is a case where a large part of me just wants to impose probation," Benson said. "But when someone takes that much money, systematically, on that level — I think that deserves some jail time."
Benson ruled that Dahl could self-surrender in six weeks.
Dahl diverted This Is the Place Foundation money to his personal livestock operation to buy cattle and supplies from January 2007 to January 2011. The mail fraud charge stems from one transaction in November 2010. He admitted to sending a foundation check to Trevor Roche Company, a Parma, Idaho, cattle ranch in the amount of $6,800.
In total, Dahl was ordered to pay back $321,608. As of Tuesday, he owed $202,418.
"I'll regret this dishonesty for the rest of my life," Dahl told Benson Tuesday. "I sacrificed my values, I cheated, I lied, I stole and all this came at the expense of not just This Is the Place, but my family as well."
He apologized to those at the park for the financial loss and the negative publicity and thanked his family for its support. He said what has happened demonstrated something he has tried to teach his sons that "other good decisions can be wiped out by one bad."
Romney cited sentencing guidelines in calling for a sentence of 27 to 33 months and said the sentence needed to send a message to the community. But Benson responded only by offering up a number of questions to Romney about whether incarceration is an actual deterrent.
"You really think it's the jail thing that stops a person?" he asked the prosecutor.
"I don't think it's reasonable for the community to believe that you can steal that amount of money and walk away on probation," Romney said.
Skordas had asked for a sentence of probation, stating her belief that the major priority in this case should be to see that restitution is paid. She said Dahl had a job and estimated that he could soon make payments of as much as $1,500 a month.
Romney said there had been promises of complete repayment before and when those promises were not kept, "the park feels like it is victimized again."
Benson said a letter from Ellis Ivory, chairman of the park's board of trustees and its acting executive director, pushed him toward a prison sentence. After the hearing, Ivory said he never asked that Dahl be incarcerated, but did refer to the number of broken promises of repayment.
"I'm sorry for this day, for the Dahl family," Ivory said. "I just hope the best for them. I wish no ill will for Matt or his family. The park is strong. We had a good year last year and this year should be good, too."