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Former St. Petersburg attorney gets 30 years for stealing from clients

LARGO — Friends and family members of a former St. Petersburg lawyer came into a courtroom Friday to say wonderful things about a man who stole half a million dollars from his clients.

They said Martin Kirby Watson is a great dad, an intelligent attorney, a man who battled through drug and alcohol addictions. They said he was remorseful, that he wants to pay that half-million back.

But all the impassioned support just seemed to make Circuit Judge Chris Helinger even more disgusted.

So she sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

Helinger noted that Watson was indeed an addict, but that in 2002 he entered a recovery program that's superior to most. He bounced back and his law practice soon thrived.

After he swiped clients' funds, his father tried to make things right by setting up a payment plan for his son.

"Who in the world has that kind of benefit, that kind of opportunity?" Helinger said. "And he repeatedly, instead of taking the opportunity, turned his back on it and stole. Mr. Watson's a thief."

After one client asked Watson to repay money and another client started asking questions, Watson went out and spent more money that didn't belong to him.

"What does he do? He goes out and buys a new Audi," Helinger said.

Watson, 49, grew up in St. Petersburg and went to Shore­crest Preparatory School, the University of South Florida, George Washington University and the Stetson University College of Law.

In court Friday, he sported a nice haircut, a fresh shave, gray sweats and jail scrubs adorned with an orange stripe.

Taking off his glasses and wiping tears from his eyes, the divorced father of a teenage girl tried to explain how his life fell apart in "a flat spin to nowhere."

After he was treated in an addiction unit for lawyers, Watson said, he was able to stay sober. But looking back, he sees now that he replaced one compulsive addiction with another.

"Reckless spending replaced the substances," he said.

He took more than $200,000 from one family, more than $200,000 from a second and more than $65,000 from an estate. He did not explain what he spent it on, and there is little evidence of where it went, except for a $30,000 Audi.

Then came a series of promises and ideas — including selling his over-mortgaged house in a collapsing real estate market — that failed to get him out of the hole. Watson said he was barely aware of what he was doing when he fled to Mexico shortly before his trial in March 2009 on grand theft charges.

Authorities tracked him down there and arrested him. He pleaded guilty to the charges.

He testified on Friday that he believed he had come up with a viable business plan in Mexico that would have helped him pay the money back: selling weaponized, unmanned aircraft to South American governments.

Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson ridiculed the idea that a penniless U.S. fugitive could become a successful defense supplier.

Sitting in the witness stand, Watson said he sees clearly that "as a lawyer my actions have betrayed the most sacred of trusts one has with clients — the duty and privilege to act ethically in their best interests."

He apologized to his victims, who include an old friend from Shorecrest and a grade-school teacher who postponed her retirement because Watson raided her nest egg. Representatives of both families urged Helinger to give him a long prison sentence, saying he would likely steal from others if he got out of prison.

His attorney, Lucas Fleming, asked for a 10-year sentence, and said Watson was committed to trying to earn money to pay his former clients back.

Former St. Petersburg attorney gets 30 years for stealing from clients 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 10:58pm]
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