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If thief repays Pinellas County victims, they say they'd support a shorter prison sentence

Two months ago, when Catherine McMullen was sentenced to eight years for stealing $1 million from 18 homeowner associations, several of her victims urged the judge to give her the maximum — 30 years.

Now, some of them say they could stomach seeing her sentence reduced if she pays them back.

What changed? Before, few thought she would ever even try to repay them.

On the day of her sentencing, her husband made the first and only restitution attempt, a check for $5,000, to be divvied up among the associations.

Association residents and Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone were underwhelmed.

But since then, McMullen's attorney, John Trevena, has told the State Attorney's Office that her husband, Mac, is trying to raise money to repay them.

"He's trying to get a big loan," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. "He's hoping the judge will look favorably and might reduce the sentence."

For eight years, McMullen worked for Buxton Properties in Largo, where she had sole control of the finances for the associations Buxton managed. She told authorities she stole the money to cover bills for herself and her family and spent money on things such as a 2007 Dodge Charger for her son, dinners out, spa trips, rent and cell phone bills.

McMullen, 48, is serving her sentence in minimum security at the Department of Corrections' Lowell Annex near Ocala.

Many of the hundreds of people who live in the associations throughout Pinellas County are elderly or living on fixed incomes. The theft left them scrambling to cover bounced checks, unpaid bills and funds for future repairs.

"With the heartache she caused, there's no way she should pay back the money and walk away scot-free," said Richard Sittler, president of Sunfish Bay Condominium Association Clearwater, which lost more than $225,000.

But Sittler and other association leaders said they would be willing to compromise on tough justice to ease the burden on residents.

Like others, Sittler is skeptical that McMullen's husband could secure a loan big enough to repay everyone. But if he does, Sittler said he'd support shaving a few years off her prison sentence.

Jim Goss, vice president of Greenbriar III Condominium Association in Clearwater, said he also would be okay with a reduced sentence if McMullen "came up with the right amount of money for our restitution."

The state estimated that McMullen owes Greenbriar $48,500. The association has estimated losses at closer to $65,000, he said.

A compromise is palatable because his association is struggling.

"We're going in the hole about $1,000 a month just trying to pay our utilities" and other bills, he said.

Michael Troutner, president of Sea Island North Condominium Association in Clearwater Beach, said an eight-year sentence was appropriate. But if McMullen's husband can really pay everyone back, he'd be willing to compromise, too.

Ultimately, the decision is up to the judge, Bartlett said.

Last week, Trevena filed a request to reduce her sentence. According to his motion, an eight-year prison sentence is not warranted, given the nature of the crime, the amount of restitution owed, the sentencing guidelines and her lack of a criminal history.

A final restitution figure hasn't been set yet. But in September, the judge ordered McMullen to pay a total of at least $540,000 to the associations. Some losses were paid by insurance companies. The restitution figure doesn't include those claims, but may in the future.

"Everybody wanted to see her get the maximum," said John Winzenried, president of Arbor Heights Condominium Association in St. Petersburg.

"I don't feel sorry for her," Winzenried said. "If she makes restitution, I say, 'All right.' But I don't think she's going to do that."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

If thief repays Pinellas County victims, they say they'd support a shorter prison sentence 11/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 19, 2010 8:08pm]
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