Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

In The News

Buyer's remorse

Chicago Magazine, Volume 51, Issue 4, pp. 44-53
By Lucinda Hahn
Apr 2002


For years, Elizabeth Roch kept her shopping addiction out of sight, but then she embezzled almost a quarter of a million dollars from her employer--and got caught. The sympathetic judge sent her home with a slap on the wrist and an order to seek therapy, a ruling that raised scorn worldwide. Copyright Chicago Publishing, Inc. Apr 2002

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For years, Elizabeth Roach kept her shopping addiction out of sight. But then she embezzled almost a quarter of a million dollars from her employer-and got caught. The sympathetic judge sent her home with a slap on the wrist and an order to seek therapy, a ruling that raised scorn worldwide. Should her supposed disorder have been grounds for lenient treatment? The case isn't over yet

THE BELT BUCKLE AT NEIMAN MARCUS COST $7,000, AND ELIZABETH Roach had to have it. The 18-karat gold Keiselstein-Cord creation gleamed seductively in the store's precious jewels salon; even by Boul Mich's gaudy standards, the buckle was an extravagance. But why shouldn't Roach indulge? After winning a promotion to associate partner at Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture), she pulled in $150,000 a year, and she had made her share of financial sacrifices when her husband, Michael, was earning his law degree. Now that he was practicing, together they earned some $300,000. So on that day a few years ago, Roach slapped down a credit card, added a $3,000 pair of earrings, and signed for them both.

Back home at her Gold Coast condominium, the jewelry quickly lost its luster, as Roach, now 48, lamented what her therapist would surely term "a setback." She had succumbed, once again, to her shopping addiction, a habit that had hooked her in the mid-seventies and had caused no end of trouble ever since.

Roach eventually racked up a $60,000 bundle of credit card debt. Purchase after purchase piled up until, during a frenzied spree on a business trip to London, she squandered $30,000 and missed her flight home from Heathrow Airport. When she eventually returned, Michael insisted she enter therapy. She did, but the sessions with a psychiatrist hadn't stopped her urge to splurge. Now, worrying that Michael's patience was wearing thin, that he might even leave her, Roach buried the jewelry deep in her closet.

But Michael Roach stood by his wife, even five years later in a courtroom at the Dirksen Federal Building, where on May 23, 2001, she stood convicted of embezzling $241,061 from Accenture. Judge Matthew Kennelly, noting her husband's support-- and the Roaches' ability to afford a skilled attorney and a well-known psychiatrist to act as an expert witness-remarked, "Ms. Roach, although I am sure you don't feel particularly lucky right now, you are actually ... a pretty fortunate person." Then he gave Roach her luckiest break yet. Although her crime carried a recommended prison sentence of 12 to 18 months, Kennelly agreed with the passionate defense put forth by her lawyer: that Roach was a compulsive shopper whose mental disorder had caused her to embezzle against her will. "Just as Ms. Roach could not control her compulsion to shop," the judge ruled, ". . . she was not able to fully control the things she did in order to allow her to continue... that compulsion." He handed down a reduced sentence, allowing a woman who had stolen nearly a quarter of a million dollars to go home to the Gold Coast with five years' probation.

Kennelly padded the sentence with a $30,000 fine, six months of weekend home confinement, and stints at a Salvation Army work release center. He also ordered Roach to continue therapy and even refrain from getting new credit cards or incurring further debt. (Roach also paid Accenture back in full.) Still, it was a far cry from a year and a half in the slammer, and the government immediately appealed, foreseeing a Pandora's box of similar rulings. "If Roach is entitled to a [break]," says Joel Levin, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, "then we believe that there are many, many other individuals-compulsive shoppers, compulsive gamblers, or others who commit crimes-who would, by the same logic, be entitled." The case was under consideration in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit as Chicago went to press.

The U.S. attorney's office wasn't alone in disliking the ruling, which received worldwide attention. Under the headline "Addiction Plays No Favorites; Law Is Another Story," an indignant Mary Schmich wrote in her Chicago Tribune column: "All addictions are sad, but addicts are still responsible for their acts, whether their weakness is dope or Prada." In London, The Independent blared, "Let Me Off, I'm a Shopaholic." And in Edinburgh, The Scotsman needed only two words to sum up what had happened in the Chicago courtroom: "Daylight Robbery."

The reaction paralleled the controversy that had followed the 1979 San Francisco murder trial of Dan White, an ex-city supervisor who fatally shot the mayor and another public official. There, White's so-- called Twinkie defense-he suffered from depression, which was worsened by his addiction to sugary junk food-helped a jury find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

But just as the San Francisco murder trial had very little to do with yellow snack cakes, U.S. v. Elizabeth Randolph Roach is about more than a well-heeled woman who claimed she couldn't stop shopping. Beyond the belt buckles and Bottega bags that make the court documents read like a summer beach book, Roach's case, whatever the outcome, sheds light on a legitimate but little understood psychological disorder, first written about in 1915-one of a constellation of human frailties that, when tried in our imperfect legal system, sometimes earn criminals a pass, and sometimes do not.

Until April 1999, when she was fired from Accenture, Elizabeth Roach seemed to have it all: devoted friends, a lucrative career, a loving husband. Indeed, her good luck seemed as bottomless as her purse. Once, after Michael bought her a $2,000 necklace at a store's going-out-of-business sale, an appraiser delighted her by reporting that the strand was worth a great deal more-$26,000. But the consultant's gold-standard life masked a painful, chronic depression, which she kept concealed as carefully as her $7,000 belt buckle.

Born in Ohio in 1953, Roach grew up amid bickering and booze. Her parents' fighting and her father's heavy drinking dominated the household, and on the few occasions when he mustered some kindness, it was an affection doled out primarily with plastic. "Here, sweetheart, here's a credit card," he told his daughter. "Go buy yourself something." (Roach declined repeated requests, through her lawyer, for an interview; her quoted statements and biographical information come from the numerous court documents generated by the case.)

When Elizabeth was eight, her mother picked her up from school and, without warning, moved her and her siblings to another state. A few years later, her mother remarried; remarkably, Elizabeth's stepfather proved more reprehensible than the father she had left behind. He began sexually abusing her, episodes that Roach would later recount "credibly" to court-appointed psychiatrists, according to Judge Kennelly.

Left to her own devices, Elizabeth started to avoid food. When she did eat, she would often make herself vomit afterwards. At college, Elizabeth found another way to deal with her troubles: shopping. Hitting the stores helped relieve her melancholy, and spending money made her feel closer to her father, who had died in a car crash around this time while driving drunk. But the sprees didn't cure her growing depression, and Elizabeth went into counseling.

Still, she couldn't stop shopping. During her first marriage, from 1980 to 1985, she owned 70 pairs of shoes. She "felt compelled to go shopping every Saturday," she said, and "would sneak the purchases home and hide them." After her husband left unexpectedly, her shopping grew worse. "[I] tried to fill the void felt in my life by acquiring material possessions and spending money," Roach said. But like most other compulsive habits, her shopping led her to financial ruin and an even deeper depression.

Yet when she married Michael Roach in late 1985, the clouds appeared to break. She used her master's degree in education to win a $53,000-a-year job as an organization development manager in Richmond, Virginia, and by 1993 she was earning $120,000 as a senior consultant for Computer Sciences Corporation. In 1996, she signed on with Andersen Consuiting, and she and Michael moved to a desirable address on Astor Place, just a short stroll from the Magnificent Mile.

From his offices on the Stanford University campus, Lorrin M. Koran is trying to unlock the mystery of people who shop too much-what one expert calls "the smiled-upon addiction." In 2000, planning to study how the antidepressant Celexa, which affects the functioning of the brain chemical serotonin, might help compulsive shoppers, Koran advertised for shopaholics. He found 22 women and two men who fit the profile, and most had very little to grin about. "Four of them had gone bankrupt; three of them had been divorced because they couldn't or wouldn't stop shopping; one lady was about to lose her house," says Koran.

The participants' total debts ranged from $8,000 to $100,000 each, with a mean of $40,000. Numbers aside, the nonsensical nature of their shopping impressed even Koran-who, as a professor of psychiatry, was hardly a newbie to bizarre behavior. "One guy was buying every new camera that came out," he says. "Another fellow had 2,000 wrenches."

But, as Koran sees it, the latest tool or Prada tote isn't what shopaholics want. They want to feel better. Buying makes that happen, perhaps by spurring the release of mood-enhancing chemicals such as endorphins, adrenaline, and serotonin. "During the time people are shopping, they often describe feeling happy, euphoric, calm, peaceful, or good," Koran says. "Shopping has gotten them out of a negative mood-maybe they had felt depressed, anxious, bored, or lonely, which they then treated by going shopping. So now they feel good, temporarily."

Back home, though, the spree's uplifting effect wears off as surely as a Vicodin high. The new boots or baubles lose their appeal, and the shopaholic often stashes them away, not bothering to tear off the price tags or even take them out of the bags. Relief is gained not by having but by shopping, and the next time the shopaholic wants to flee a wretched mood, he or she will have to go out and buy again. It is a compulsive cycle that was first written about in 1915 by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. He named it "oniomania," derived from onos, the Greek word for "price." For the next 80 years or so, his discovery was largely ignored.

But in the mid-nineties, compulsive shopping hit the pychiatric radar screen again. A group led by University of Cincinnati psychiatrist Susan McElroy suggested criteria to help diagnose the disorder (symptom one: frequent preoccupation with buying). Today, the only large-scale study yet done suggests that the disorder afflicts 2 percent to 8 percent of the population, depending on the criteria used to define "shopaholic." Acknowledging the numbers might be too high, Koran says: "Even if it was one percent ... I mean, one percent is a lot-it's the prevalence of epilepsy."

What is more certain, Koran says, is that shopaholism is a woman's disease. About eight out of ten compulsive shoppers are women; men's psyches, it seems, favor other impulse control disorders such as pathological gambling and pyromania.

By virtue of its uncontrollable nature, compulsive shopping almost always leads to financial difficulties. But none of Koran's 24 bankrupt, depressed, double-- mortgaged, or about-to-divorce shopaholics had resorted to illegal behavior, such as stealing money. "That is not part of the disorder," says Koran, who interviewed the participants extensively. "It's part of a separate problem."

What kind of problem? "Well," he answers plainly, "if you steal money from people, it's robbery or burglary or something. But it's not part of the disorder of compulsive shopping."

While Elizabeth Roach scurried up the career ladder, she couldn't outrun her demons, and, despite the financial mess it caused, she continued to shop compulsively. "I wanted to feel better, to stop the sadness and depression," she said in a court document. "It only made it worse." The ballooning credit card bills became a "focal point," as Elizabeth said, of the Roaches' marriage. To avoid arguments, she began finding ways to conceal the amounts she had spent: She took out new credit cards without Michael's knowledge and had the bills sent to her office or to a friend's house. In the latter case, she even went as far as having the friend pay the bills with a check, which Elizabeth would reimburse with cash.

But a few months after starting her new job in Chicago, Roach happened on a fresh source of money. She had registered and paid for a professional training conference, then didn't go because of work obligations. The conference staff canceled the registration fee on her credit card. But she had already submitted an expense report for the charge. When Roach received an expense check reimbursing her for the fee, she realized Accenture's accounting department didn't know that she had not attended the conference.

She knew she should return the check, but she couldn't resist the opportunity it presented-or the ease with which she could conceal it from her husband. "I saw in an instant how I could keep the money," she said, "to help pay my American Express or Diners Club bill, both of which were at levels I could not pay." Over the next three years, Roach embezzled a total of $115,469 by signing up for, and withdrawing from, seminars and conferences. "It seemed like the only way to survive at the time," she said, according to a court document. "I prayed and prayed to God to help me stop."

But rather than quitting, she discovered new ways to steal from Accenture. One scheme, involving airplane tickets, netted her $89,525. After using tickets for business travel, she submitted expense reports that claimed she had paid for them herself. In fact, the travel agency issuing the tickets had billed Accenture, which paid the agency directly. Similarly, she raked in $15,850 by submitting expenses for which she had already been reimbursed; she inflated legitimate expenses to the tune of $19,010; and she skimmed off another $1,204 by submitting personal expenses, such as clothing, and falsely labeling them as business expenses.

Remarkably, Accenture didn't discover the fraud for nearly three years. When the firm finally realized what was going on, corporate officials called the FBI, then fired Roach in April 1999. Later, Accenture officials were amused to hear of her "shopaholic defense," as one manager called it, laughing. "When she was terminated, she didn't throw herself on the floor and say, 'I'm a shopaholic.' That was never raised as an issue."

Roach's lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, is a criminal defense attorney with a two-- room office on Jackson Boulevard. For the better part of his 25-year career, he has specialized in white-collar clients who, having admitted their guilt, want to win the lightest possible sentence. To that end, in several cases Steinback has made use of a client's psychiatric disorder. But adept as he is at maneuvering within the gray zone where mental illness and law overlap, he insists that his Roach defense "was not a brilliant piece of lawyering." Indeed, because the legal system has made allowances for all kinds of disorders, from insanity to alcoholism, it is likely even a rookie lawyer could have kept Roach out of jail. As Steinback put it, "it isn't complicated."

Step one: Decide that your client can be construed as crazy. According to Steinback, this part was easy. He first met with Roach at her Astor Place condo, where he found her crying and shaking. "All people who are right thinking are scared to death when they get under a microscope for alleged criminal behavior," he says. "But this was something else. It really defied my ability to describe, but this was a person who was shaken down to her core. Not 'I'm scared; I'm sorry; get me out of this.' Just shaken right to her foundation. Fragile to the point that if I picked her up and dropped her, I would fear she would shatter into thousands of pieces."

Step two: Establish a link between your client's mental illness and the crime. Roach's compulsive disorder caused her out-of-control shopping binges, to be sure, but could Steinback convince a judge the disorder had also caused her to embezzle some $250,000? Not surprisingly, he believed the link was obvious. "I don't think it takes a brilliant psychiatrist," he says, "[to see that] there is no reason why Elizabeth Roach would have done any of these things but for her mental illness. There isn't. She didn't want the things she bought: She took them back. She didn't wear them, she didn't resell them for money; in fact, she went into hock over them. Why did she do that? Why would anybody do that? There's not a rational explanation. Mental illness, by its definition, causes a person to behave irrationally."

Step three: Plead for a lesser sentence. In 1984, a commission developed guidelines to be used when meting out punishments in federal cases-so that similar offenders would receive similar sentences for similar crimes, no matter where in the United States they were tried.

But the commission included this proviso: A judge could depart from the recommended sentence if there were mitigating factors.

One of those factors is called diminished capacity. "Diminished capacity" is a legal term that means the convicted defendant had a significantly impaired ability to understand that his behavior was wrong or to control behavior he knew was wrong. (The diminished capacity cannot have been caused by voluntary use of drugs or other intoxicants.)

This level of mental disorder is sometimes used to characterize compulsive gamblers in court for embezzlement. It is a disorder considerably less severe than a level of insanity that would allow a defendant to plead not guilty due to insanity. But like insanity, diminished capacity reflects one of the most basic tenets of the legal system in the United States: People whose mental problems render their crimes involuntary shouldn't be treated as harshly as people who are healthy and whose crimes are voluntary.

If Steinback could convince the judge that Roach had embezzled because her depression left her with a "diminished capacity," he could plead guilty but gain his client a lighter punishment than the 12 to 18 months that the federal sentencing guidelines recommended.

The more familiar Steinback became with Roach's depression, debt, and compulsive shopping, the more convinced he was that she deserved this break. Of course, the prosecution disagreed: Roach had been snapped up by another company, which was paying her $175,000 a year for her clearheaded consulting prowess.

Step four: Bring out the shrinks. To prove that Roach couldn't help but steal, Steinback produced letters from eight psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors who had treated her over the years. He also hired an expert witness to assess her; Robert Galatzer-Levy, a psychiatrist and faculty member of the University of Chicago's psychiatry department, testified that Roach had a significantly impaired ability "to control behavior she knew to be wrong." But in the end, Steinback probably didn't need Galatzer-Levy's testimony: Even the prosecution's expert witness, Dr. Paul Pasulka, a psychologist on the faculties of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University medical schools, agreed that Roach's depression made her only partially responsible for her crime. "Ms. Roach suffers from a diminished capacity secondary to psychological conditions of depression, anxiety and compulsive behavior," Pasulka concluded, "such that she could not fully control the [embezzlement] that she knew was wrongful."

While Judge Kennelly, 45, was announcing his ruling last May 23rd, Roach held her lawyer's hand so tightly his fingertips turned blue. "I didn't have the heart to let go," Steinback says.

Kennelly, a former business lawyer specializing in white-collar crime who had been on the bench for two years, had good news for the defendant: "The evidence is undisputed that Ms. Roach would not have committed a crime had it not been for her psychiatric condition," the judge said. "Her offense was part and parcel of her compulsive behavior."

Steinback's circulation didn't return, though, until Roach understood she could leave the courtroom a free woman, which was probably about the time Kennelly invoked self-help lingo to sentence her. "I know you treat this as a very serious matter," he said to Roach. "I know that you have internalized this." Then, as if he had somehow inconvenienced the expensively tailored, tearful woman, he added: "I know that a felony conviction is a very serious impediment."

Kennelly managed to fashion her sentence around her vacation time at her new job, adding that he hoped the sentence would "not disrupt [her] therapy, which is very important in terms of this not happening again."

Two months earlier, no one had asked Denise Lyons about her vacation or therapy schedule as she stood for sentencing in a Rhode Island federal court. Another compulsive shopper, Lyons had pleaded guilty to embezzling $432,175 while working at a bank.

As in the Roach case, no one quibbled with the severity of Lyons's disorder ("A good day," she told a court-appointed therapist, might be spending $100 at a drugstore, versus $3,000 at an upscale department store). Nevertheless, the judge batted away her request for a sentencing break. While it was clear that Lyons "suffer[ed] from an illness," the judge said, Lyons's obsessive-compulsive disorder was not "responsible for the theft." In fact, the judge ruled, the bank fraud "was clearly within [her] ability to control." Lyons, 43, is now serving 27 months in prison.

"Psychiatry is not a science of high reliability," says Jeffrey Schaler, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, in Washington, D.C. "So, when you have this unholy matrimony of psychiatry and law, you see an arbitrary application of law, varying from person to person."

Schaler ranks among the nation's prickliest protesters of the legal system's increasing reliance on psychiatry. "What's happening, as the Roach case reflects, is that these crimes are effectively construed as acts stemming from a 'status,"' says Schaler. "People aren't going to argue that depression is not a disease. You can't do it. That's taboo. So, since she's clinically depressed, well, aren't there symptoms that stem from the depression? And she's saying embezzlement is one of them."

The more the courts rely on psychiatry-a fast-clip trend that took off in the late sixties-the more the legal system compromises its authority, Schaler says. "When you let someone off on something like this, there's no end. They'll always be able to argue that some mysterious force-some mental illness-made them do it."

There is a chance, he says, that the ruling will be overturned on appeal. But he doubts it. "The argument is very popular," he says. "Psychiatrists are the new priests. They mystify judges and jurors and speak with authority."

Arguing a case in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, can be a humiliating affair. Though the lawyers will have submitted written briefs in advance, each side has only ten minutes to make its case, and seconds tick away agonizingly as the three sitting judges interrupt, question, and, in effect, shoot holes in lawyers' arguments as casually as marksmen taking target practice. On December 3rd, Jeffrey Steinback prepared to defend Kennelly's ruling, hoping to keep Roach, whom he "loved... like a daughter," he said, out of prison. Steinback stood confidently, looking every bit the broad-shouldered University of Iowa gymnast he once was. In front of him, behind a raised credenza, sat circuit judges Terence Evans; Ann Claire Williams; and Richard Posner, the prolific author and acerbic intellectual who had been profiled that week in The New Yorker.

Steinback spoke for about 30 seconds; then the judges began pulling their triggers. The resulting exchange reflects the uncertainty that plagues the justice system when it tries to determine what role a mental disorder has played in a defendant's crime. Judge Evans interrupted first. "What bothers me here is that these [sentencing] guidelines-with young, 20year-old kids that go to prison for 20 years in these drug cases-are very rigid. And here you have someone who makes $150,000 a year and she is a 'compulsive shopper,' and she gets the benefit here. It just seems to me to be hard to intellectually justify."

"It is not a benefit to have your entire life virtually destroyed by reason of a mental illness," Steinback responded quickly. "I can tell this panel, without equivocation."

"Yeah," barked Posner, "but here's the variant of Judge Evans's question: Suppose you had a person who stole from his or her employer because she was poor, and had a sick child or something like that. That person doesn't get any break."

"That person is not one suffering from a mental illness," said Steinback.

"Yeah, but what is the logic of that?" Posner argued. ". . . Now if the depression was actually driving her to defraud her employer, that's something different. But the findings and the evidence are very thin on that."

While they had directed relatively few questions to the prosecuting attorney, the judges grilled Steinback for ten minutes, interrupting him, chiding him, contradicting him, and using a certain sneering inflection whenever they uttered the phrase "compulsive shopper." Afterward, Steinback looked shell-shocked, as if he had just taken a spill in the Olympic finals but couldn't quite figure out how the blunder had happened.

So Elizabeth Roach may still go to prison. As Chicago went to press, she had already spent three months fretting in her Astor Place apartment, awaiting the court of appeals' decision. If Judge Kennelly's ruling is overturned, the case will go back to him for resentencing according to the original guidelines-12 to 18 months in a federal prison.

One of Roach's psychiatrists, Arnold Goldberg, says that spending time in prison, even in the white-collar, minimum-security facility she would likely call home, would be "of little or no benefit." Dr. Galatzer-Levy, her expert witness at trial, adds, "If [her] therapy is interrupted by incarceration... her propensity to engage in compulsive behaviors is likely to rise very significantly."

That's a risk the court may be willing to live with, when considering the $241,061 Roach embezzled to finance her shopping habit. In minimum-security camp, she will find her urge to splurge somewhat restricted: Prisoners have a monthly spending limit in the commissary of about $275. Breck shampoo is among the most popular purchases. And high-end items such as a pair of shoes-- well-made sneakers though they are-go for about 80 bucks.

She began finding ways to conceal the amounts she had spent: She took out new credit cards without her husband's knowledge and had the bills sent to her office or to a friend's house.

"When you let someone off on something like this," says one expert, there's no end. They'll always be able to argue that some mysterious forcesome mental illness-- made them do it."

Copyright 2002, Chicago Magazine