Taking the cake: New TV doc tracks the great Texas fruitcake embezzlement case

A Texas bakery has been selling fruitcakes for over 125 years. But a new TV documentary streaming on Discovery + traces how a multi-million dollar embezzlement nearly switched off the ovens.

By Jerome Weeks & Jill AmentDecember 2, 2021 1:28 pm, , , ,

Below this story, you’ll find the transcript of an interview with documentary filmmaker Celia Aniskovich, the director of “Fruitcake Fraud.” You can listen to audio from the story and the interview is above.

From KERA:

The Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana is a Texas institution for many — including 87-year-old Dorothy Goodman. She’s been buying its DeLuxe fruitcake — driving the 140 miles roundtrip from Arlington to Corsicana — every Christmas season for 30 years.

Why does she keep coming back?

“Because the cakes are delicious,” she said.

But it’s possible to order them online now.

“Noooo, it’s not the same thing!”

Behind all the holiday cheer, all the history and family memories, is a 30-million-dollar-a-year business. Collin Street has a production line with ovens that bake two-thousand, three-thousand cakes at a time. Normally, 100 employees work on the line, in the office and the four bakeshops. But during peak season, that leaps to 500 — as they create one million fruitcakes or more, shipping them to 196 countries around the world.

Despite this booming business, Collin Street, about a decade ago, kept coming up short financially. Year after year. Raises were stopped. They had to lay off people. Management was baffled.

Jerome Weeks / KERA

Collin Street Bakery has four locations, including one in Waco, but this is the company headquarters in Corsicana – with a cafe, offices and the bakery production line.

“Were we wasting inventory?” asked Hayden Crawford, vice president of customer service. “Are our profit margins not where they’re supposed to be? What went wrong? We kept asking these questions each year.”

The hero who cracked the mystery was a brand-new accounting clerk, Semetric Walker, who dug through years of invoices and checks — and learned who was taking the money.

And just how much.

“Nearly 17 million dollars far exceeds what you typically see in these situations,” said Nick Bunch, who was the federal prosecutor in Dallas in charge of the case. “Often, after about a million dollars, a million and a half is taken, most companies realize it. They can’t withstand that level of theft. With the bakery, they were making so much money, they didn’t see the 17 million that was missing.”

Celia Aniskovich is the director-producer of the new TV documentary, Fruitcake Fraud. Aniskovich specializes in true crime stories. But this story, with its small-town humor and its homey Texana, was different.

“What I realized early on is that the town of Corsicana is as much a part of this story as any employee at Collin Street Bakery,” she said. “One of the lines from the movie that anyone from a small town will get is that ‘The gossip is home before you get home.’”

The gossip spread fast because of the identity of the culprit. He was the Collin Street comptroller, Sandy Jenkins. He’d worked there for 15 years.

Semetric Walker, accounting clerk. (Discovery +)

In Fruitcake Fraud, Semetric Walker recalls the moment when she realized that it had to be Jenkins who’d been stealing the money.

“I was just beside myself,” she said.  “I mean, I can remember just being hysterical. I was crying.”

Hayden Crawford said for most people at the company who learned Jenkins had been embezzling, it was a shock.

“He’s very under-the-radar, a Walter Mitty-ish type, he’s very unassuming — but very nice,” Crawford said. “He would come in every Friday and he would hand out 20 dollar bills to the bakeshop staff. ‘Course it was our money, as we learned later. Still, he was a generous guy. It was like learning someone in your family had done it.”

Bunch, the federal prosecutor, says a nice-guy wallflower is not the typical brains behind a multi-million dollar scheme.

“You often have very strong personalities, very type A,” he said. “They’re people who think they can do no wrong, who think they can’t get caught. I think Jenkins always secretly knew he’d get caught. He was just going to ride it out as long as he could.”

Jenkins and his wife Kay were certainly living it up, renting a private jet, buying a new Lexus each year, getting a mortgage on a second home in Santa Fe — and all this, on his fifty thousand dollar annual salary.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Bunch. (Discovery +)

But director Aniskovich says there was a neediness to Jenkins, not a swagger. A hole he was trying to fill. He wanted to impress others, to impress his wife. He wanted approval, he wanted to be liked.

“Sandy just wanted to fit in,” she said.

The criminal investigation itself takes some strange turns. At one point, an FBI team – with a search warrant – breaks into the Jenkins’ home to search for any luxury items that might remain – evidence of what the Jenkins had done with the stolen money. A wine collection, a grand piano, a jewelry safe, a cedar sauna: “There was just so much stuff,” one agent says in the documentary.

While this is going on, an ever-expanding contingent of Corsicana residents stroll up and watch the proceedings — as the FBI hauls away boxes and boxes. At another point, police divers drag up nearly half-a-million dollars’ worth of watches and jewelry from Town Lake in Austin. A panicked Sandy had apparently chucked them there.

Hayden Crawford, Collin Street VP for customer service. (Discovery +)

In the end, Fruitcake Fraud mixes in humor and surprises with poignance and tragedy.

Hayden Crawford said that’s what a lot of it felt like: “You can’t even describe how startling it was. It was jarring and jolting.”

The Collin Street Bakery survived all of this — in fact, after the Jenkins were convicted in 2015, Crawford says, support from customers was heartwarming. Since then, the pandemic has decreased walk-up business to the shops, but online sales have taken off, more than making up the losses.

Even so, the company is so traditional, it still keeps a phone center staffed during the holidays. It still processes one million dollars in personal checks.

In American pop culture, the fruitcake has been a holiday joke. Johnny Carson, in particular, made it a running gag around Christmas. It became that dusty brick your great-aunt sends each year because no one ever eats it.

But Crawford believes that attitude is fading. Carson, after all, started taking his swings way back in the ’60s. Crawford reports younger people aren’t aware of the fruitcake’s humorous history at all.

That may change.

A documentary is one thing. But Fort Worth film producer Red Sanders has been working on getting a fictional film made about this same case.

It’s called, simply, Fruitcake.

And it’s expected to star Will Ferrell.

If you’re interested in the ‘fruitcake song’ that plays at the end, it’s by Fred Schneider & the Superions (Schneider is the former B-52s founder).

An interview with Celia Aniskovich, director the documentary, “Fruitcake Fraud.”

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What attracted you to telling the story of this small-town Texas scandal?

Celia Aniskovich: I didn’t grow up with Collin Street Fruitcake, like so many people. I’m from the Northeast, although I know that they ship far and wide. And I came across this story like anyone else, in a news article and thought, this can’t possibly be true. And of course it is. And so I very quickly called up the bakery and got myself dug in and found out more than I could have ever imagined it was possible, and the story took me in directions that I would have never expected.

I would imagine you would have to come down to Corsicana. What were your impressions of the town and the folks that you found there?

We spent the month of July filming in Corsicana. Very interesting to make a Christmas film in the 110 degrees Texas July heat, but we pulled it off. And my impressions were that it was like so many small towns in America. It was like the small town that I grew up in. People care about each other. You know your neighbors. And I think what struck me was that it was about so much more than the $17 million. And actually, for the people of Corsicana, what hurt them most was not the money, but the sense of betrayal that one of their own, someone they considered a friend, a family member could do this to them.

What do you hope your viewers take away from the documentary? Were you thinking about that as you were winding your way through the streets of Corsicana?

I was. This is so much more than a wild, true crime tale. Of course, there’s something about fruitcake that makes everyone smile, even just saying the word. But for me, there’s a real message to this film. I know the people involved have their own lessons learned from it. But for me, I think it comes from one of the contributors who in the end of the film, says, You know, next time you see that fruitcake in the corner, that person who was just a little different, remember, he might just need a friend. And I’ve always loved that, and I think there is a hopeful ending to a film that has a lot of tragedy and a lot of dark moments. But I think it’s a film that I hope people sit around and watch with their families and their loved ones and think, you know, I’m lucky to have the people in my life that I do. And I think it’s a film that reminds us of what’s important in life. And that is who we love and what we love. And I think for a holiday film, there’s no better message.

Speaking of what we love and perhaps what we might not so much. I can’t I can’t let you go without asking you, since fruitcake is in and of itself somewhat controversial. Did you eat much fruitcake while you were in Corsicana?

I ate a lot of fruitcake. I ate a lot of things, period. What I will say, which you’ll hear from a lot of people, is I do not like fruitcake, but I do like Collin Street fruitcake. Although if I can put a plug in for another Collin Street Bakery item, better than fruitcake to me is their cherry icebox cookie, which anyone from Texas is probably familiar with, and it is unlike any cookie you’ve ever had.

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