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Ex-Vt. college president dies in apparent suicide

Thursday - 2/21/2013, 8:22pm  ET

This Feb. 7, 2012 photo shows James Beckwith, former chief operating officer and acting president of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Vt. Vermont State Police said James Beckwith was found dead in his home Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2013, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had been accused of embezzling $440,000 from the school when he served as acting president between October 2012 and January, depositing it into his personal account, and using $260,000 to pay down two mortgages secured by his South Londonderry home. (AP Photo/Bennington Banner, Peter Crabtree)

Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- The former acting president of a small Vermont liberal arts college was found dead in an apparent suicide amid an investigation into the embezzlement of $440,000 in school funds, authorities said Thursday.

Former acting Southern Vermont College President James Beckwith was found dead Wednesday in his Londonderry home, state police said. Authorities said his injuries were consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

No further information was available pending an autopsy and toxicology examination, police said. No foul play is suspected.

Beckwith's body was discovered the same day federal prosecutors filed a civil complaint involving the alleged misappropriation of college money.

Beckwith was accused of taking the money between October 2012 and January while serving as acting president of the small liberal arts school in Bennington. Authorities said he deposited the money into a personal account, using $260,000 to pay down two mortgages.

The complaint from the U.S. attorney's office alleges the South Londonderry home and account are forfeitable as proceeds of mail fraud and as property involved in money laundering.

Civil complaints are filed when prosecutors are concerned about assets being dissipated, said U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin. Beckwith had not been criminally charged and did not have any apparent criminal record.

Prosecutors said Beckwith, 58, had college officials issue three checks to Merrill Lynch, saying they were to settle legal claims arising from a failed dormitory project. But the checks for $100,000, $160,000 and $180,000 were deposited into a personal account, prosecutors said.

A recent audit of the college's finances for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2012, found several suspicious financial transactions involving purported vendor payments by Beckwith, the U.S. attorney's office said.

When questioned about the matter, Beckwith resigned on Feb. 3, according to the complaint.

The college sent an email to faculty and students saying it was saddened by Beckwith's unexpected death, said school president Karen Gross.

"This is a difficult and sad time for all of us who knew Jim. His many contributions to our community will be remembered," Gross wrote.

The college met with faculty on Thursday and planned to meet with students Thursday night to discuss the unexpected death and the civil complaint filed by federal authorities.

Beckwith had been chief financial officer and chief operating officer of the college since 2007. He served as acting president while Gross was on a one-year leave as a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Education Department.

The college has about 550 students.

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