Employees of a Petaluma company bonded during the recent economic downturn, providing comfort for one another at a time of heartbreaking layoffs and pay cuts.

Their chief of technology, John C. Sheehan, 43, was seemingly among the tight-knit group at Bibbero Systems Inc., which some workers considered their extended family.

Little did anyone know, as employees lost their jobs and gave up bonuses over the past six years, that Sheehan was lining his pockets with nearly $1.2 million he embezzled from the company.

As the 59-year-old firm shrunk in size from 150 employees to just 62, Sheehan was spending the stolen loot on an extensive remodeling of his Rohnert Park home, buying Mercedes-Benz cars and traveling.

On Tuesday, his former co-workers expressed their outrage in a Santa Rosa courtroom as a judge sentenced Sheehan to more than nine years in prison.

"How you could sit there, everyday, 10 feet from me, creating phony invoices and stealing from me is beyond my comprehension," said Bibbero President Michael Buckley, who was forced to fire people over the losses. "I'm crushed. I hope you enjoy your time in prison."

Sheehan, in custody since his Aug. 2 arrest, showed little emotion and responded with a short apology. He asked for probation and promised to become "a better person."

"I'm very sorry for my selfish actions," he said.

But Judge Robert LaForge imposed the plea bargain sentence and ordered Sheehan to return $1,189,509. He will be out in less than four years, said his lawyer, Walter Rubenstein.

"It's clear from the people who have spoken here this morning that you destroyed a business," LaForge said. "While you'll be in prison for a number of years, the people at the company will have to start over."

Sheehan was the latest to be punished in a string of embezzlements that have plagued North Coast businesses in the past few years.

Jodi Azevedo, 44, of Petaluma was charged last month with siphoning more than $1.5 million from a San Rafael commercial real estate firm where she worked. In September, Charity Howder, 36, of Santa Rosa was arrested on suspicion of stealing more than $260,000 from two bookkeeping clients.

Sheehan, whose original name was John Christopher Schoenthal, began stealing from his employer of 15 years in 2006 after the company withheld raises because of the recession.

Prosecutors said he created a fictitious company, MP Technologies, and began billing for office supplies never received. Initially, he took about $4,000 a month but by 2009 was stealing $8,000 a month.

He admitted spending the money to build a pool house, on remodeling and to take trips to such places as the Cayman Islands and Las Vegas. He didn't gamble, but stayed in five-star hotels and attended rock concerts and plays.

"Once I started, it was hard to stop because it was a lifestyle change," Sheehan said in a Probation Department report.

The embezzlement came to light when a manager looked up MP Technologies on the Internet and determined it was fake. Sheehan was trying to conceal the theft and empty his bank account a few days before his arrest.

Prosecutor Amy Ariyoshi said detectives recovered about $55,000 and seized assets, including cars and home electronics. The rest of the money was gone, she said.

The owners of Bibbero Systems, which makes office record-keeping materials, said the company would survive. Buckley attributed up to 10 layoffs to the embezzlement.

Personnel manager Jodi Clark spoke in court about making those cuts. She recalled how employees sat at her desk, crying, wondering how they would feed their families, while Sheehan was stealing money to buy "another TV or Xbox," she said.

"We treated you like family," Clark told Sheehan. "It just amazes me that you could do this to us."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.