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Largo woman had help stealing from homeowner groups, lawyer asserts

Catherine McMullen, the woman accused of stealing as much as $1 million from about 20 homeowners groups in Pinellas County, didn't pull it off by herself, according to her new attorney, John Trevena.

"This was not a single individual acting alone," Trevena said last week.

But authorities give little credence to the claim. And Trevena wouldn't elaborate on who his client says helped her.

Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, said the only other person who was in a position to aid McMullen was her former boss, Brian Buxton, and there's nothing to suggest someone else was involved.

"I tend to think there's not much to this in substance," Bartlett said. "It's just an attempt to misdirect the attention from her."

Buxton's attorney also doubts Trevena's allegation.

"She has already told law enforcement that she acted alone and that Mr. (Brian) Buxton had no knowledge of her behavior," said Sean McQuaid, of Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein in St. Petersburg.

One thing is clear: Hopes for a swift resolution evaporated when McMullen's high-profile criminal defense attorney strolled into court last week.

McMullen, 47, of Largo, was charged with grand theft in April. She could serve as much as 30 years or as little as 21 months, according to sentencing guidelines. McMullen also could get a shorter sentence if the court found she cooperated or if it took other matters into account, Trevena said.

McMullen, who had sole control of the finances for Buxton Properties in Largo and the associations the company managed, admitted to a complicated shell game that involved shifting money from various association bank accounts as well as Buxton's accounts, Largo police say.

From at least 2006, McMullen stole from the accounts to cover bills for herself, her two sons, and her husband, an officer in the Army Reserve who was living in Arizona, police say. The money went to items such as dinners, spa trips, house payments, student loans and credit card bills, authorities say.

At first, during her March interview with police Detective Lara Young, McMullen indicated that Buxton knew what she was doing. She said that when she told him there was no money in the business accounts, he said, 'Take care of it,' and/or, 'Get the money from somewhere.' "

But McMullen also said Buxton didn't mean for her to do anything illegal and she never told him she was taking money from the accounts to cover bills.

Henry Sklar, a resident at Sunfish Bay Condominium Association in Clearwater, said he has no idea whether Buxton knew what McMullen was doing. But he thinks he should have.

"I can't imagine she acted alone, but if she did, that someone in her company wasn't aware of it," said Sklar, 69, whose association estimated losses at about $300,000. "Businesswise, it doesn't make sense to me."

Others say it appears that Buxton was simply negligent.

"I just think he's a very poor businessman," said Michael Troutner, 62, president of the Sea Island North Condominium Association in Clearwater Beach.

After a slew of delays, Troutner, whose association lost about $36,000, thought the case was winding toward a plea.

But those hopes dissolved when McMullen dropped her public defender and hired Trevena.

"Victims are very unrealistic if they think this is going to be resolved in months," Trevena said. "These cases usually take years, not months, to resolve."

Many of the victims are frustrated. Some say their insurance won't pay them unless there's a conviction.

"It's a pathetic delay of justice," Sklar said.

"I'm surprised that the judge let her get away with it," said John Winzenried, 76, board member of Arbor Heights Association in St. Petersburg.

During a hearing last week, Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone explained why.

"Obviously she has a constitutional right to hire her own lawyer," Bulone said. "And she's exercising that right."

McMullen had told the court she was working to pay back her victims.

Winzenried, whose association lost about $60,000, said McMullen is "working so she can pay her lawyer."

Trevena said McMullen plans to do both.

Coleen Chaney, a Largo police victim advocate, has talked with about 60 victims from throughout the county. The case, she said, has taken a major toll on them, and not just financially.

"There's certainly an overall sense of betrayal, not only on Mrs. McMullen's part, but on Buxton's part as well," Chaney said.

Many are elderly or living on fixed incomes, she said.

"This really blindsides them," Chaney said. "They don't have the opportunity to go out and make more money. Their earning days are behind them."

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

Largo woman had help stealing from homeowner groups, lawyer asserts 12/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 4:34pm]
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