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Man pleads no contest to exploitation

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

William Ward was supposed to be helping 85-year-old Juanita Utt with her plan to leave money to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, one of the country's oldest and most respected fundamentalist Bible schools.

Instead, officials say, the Seminole man stole $139,000 from her, using the money to buy a Porsche 911 and shop at Dillard's.

In Circuit Court on Monday, Ward, 53, of 9235 Pine Circle, pleaded no contest to three charges of elderly exploitation. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada sentenced Ward to 30 days in jail, 15 years of probation and ordered him to repay the money he took.

From 1986 to 1997, Ward was a regional field representative for Moody Bible Institute, acting as a contact for local residents who wanted to make donations or become active with the school, said Edward Theobald, a Chicago attorney for the institute.

In January 1997, the institute fired Ward for poor performance, Theobald said. Later, Theobald said, the institute learned "he had a lavish lifestyle."

"When I found out he was driving a Porsche, it didn't make any sense to me," Theobald said. "He hadn't been performing his job properly."

Officials at the institute realized that for two years Ward had been diverting money from Utt's accounts, and they told the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Theobald said.

Ward cashed one of Utt's annuities for $91,000 and spent another $48,000 using her personal checks, Assistant State Attorney Katharine Sellers said. One of the checks was written to a car dealer for $11,733, Theobald said.

"He wrote: "For Porsche 911' in the memo," Theobald said. "It was so ridiculous."

Utt, who died in November, was a widow living in a Largo retirement home when she was in contact with Ward. When the Sheriff's Office talked to her last year, "She was surprised and shocked," Theobald said.

Moody Bible Institute is acting as the trustee of Utt's estate. Ward will pay the money back in monthly installments to the institute.

"He took advantage of the situation because the lady was physically and mentally in a state where he could do that," Theobald said. "He abused the good name of the Moody Bible Institute."

Robert Bauer, Ward's attorney, said his client intends to repay all the money, and as a show of good faith presented the court with a $19,000 check as the first installment Monday. His client feels bad about what he did, Bauer said.

"I don't think he's a horrible person," Bauer said, "just someone who made a terrible mistake. I don't know what his particular reason was."