LARGO — For decades, Stanley Crooms was the kind of man who proved trustworthy — a businessman who handled money for other businesspeople, a loyal dad, a baseball coach, a private school trustee.
But Crooms recently admitted to stealing that trust, for reasons hard to fathom, by taking about $750,000 from clients, including some longtime friends.
So he came to court on Monday with a new plan: Trust me, and I'll start a new business to pay it all back.
In spite of strong support from Crooms' friends, his family and even some of his victims, a judge wasn't buying it. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Cynthia Newton rejected a request to sentence Crooms to probation and instead gave the graying, 62-year-old St. Petersburg businessman 12 years in prison.
Newton said Crooms' plan to start a cleaning business that would soon earn profits of $7,500 per month "is just not believable at all," especially considering that he has not repaid anything to his victims since his arrest three years ago.
"All I can say is I would be a fool to believe that, and so would anyone else in this room," Newton said.
Crooms was described as a smart entrepreneur who understands how to set up companies that specialize in staffing, insurance and financial management. He also was extolled as a community leader who was a past trustee of the Canterbury School and as a father devoted to his two sons, one of whom is a law student and one of whom studied graduate-level theology.
When asked to take the witness stand himself, Crooms tearfully admitted, "I blew it" and "I didn't make the right decisions."
But even so, "I do believe I have the ability to pay your funds back," he said.
Crooms had a business handling payroll, insurance and other financial matters for real estate firms, doctors and others. He gave a vague explanation of how a bank error somehow put him in the hole $273,000, which set up a snowballing effect of bills he needed to pay.
But Assistant State Attorney Robert Bruce said that explanation didn't make sense because a lot more than $273,000 was stolen from Crooms' clients.
Several longtime friends and clients of Crooms said they still believe in him. They said he was a savvy and hardworking businessman and the kind of coach who would buy sports equipment for kids who couldn't afford it. Although Crooms pleaded guilty to 11 counts of grand theft, his friends said that behavior was an "aberration" from the man they know.
And some said they were willing to hire him again. Jamie Farquharson, owner of Beaks Old Florida tavern, said he would pay Crooms up to $800 a month for cleaning and landscaping. Samuel Boutrous, owner of the Kress Building and other St. Petersburg properties, said he could pay $1,000 to $3,000.
Defense attorney Lucas Fleming said Crooms would run the new janitorial business if Newton placed him on probation, rather than sending him to prison.
But some of Crooms' victims are still feeling the pain of what he stole and still trying to pay off the debts they incurred because of him.
"I am so mad at you, Stanley Crooms," said Michelle Foster, a registered nurse and skin care therapist. "You violated my trust as a friend."
She said she is owed $41,293.68. Among other things, she said, Crooms raided her IRA, promising to invest the funds but using the money himself. She not only lost the money, but she also had to pay the IRS penalties for the unauthorized withdrawal.
"He hurt us, and he hurt us badly," said Dr. Mark Norstein, who said Crooms stole more than $104,000 from his practice.
As for the idea that Crooms could use his business smarts to start a janitorial company, Norstein said, "I can't believe him anymore. I can't believe I'll ever see any money."
Newton also was more than skeptical. Crooms' business plan was "a fantasy," she said.