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Woman gets a year in prison for hiding assets in bankruptcy case

The Pinellas County woman had hoped to get probation, saying she has post-traumatic stress disorder.

A federal judge rejected the "diminished capacity" argument of Charlotte Russell on Thursday and sentenced the Pinellas County businesswoman to a year and a day in prison on bankruptcy fraud charges.

Russell, 60, whose legal name during her trial was Charlotte Russell Levitt, had pinned her hopes for probation on psychotherapist Robert Whitford, who testified that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because she was adopted by "screwball" parents and then victimized by an abusive spouse.

"It has just been a terrible 12 years, and I made some bad judgments," said a tearful Russell.

But U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday said he was satisfied Russell did not suffer any diminished capacity when she plotted seven years ago to defraud creditors by concealing assets in a bankruptcy case.

"You caused a regal mess," Merryday said, "and you harmed every person who touched it."

None was harmed more than Marilyn Littlejohn, a well-known stockbroker who managed the Raymond James & Associates office in downtown St. Petersburg and who lived two doors down from Russell in the Village of Paradise Island Condominium on Treasure Island.

In 1994, while Russell was in the midst of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy hearing, she persuaded Littlejohn to store a few hundred dollars' worth of furnishings in her storeroom. Littlejohn said she was only doing a favor for a friend involved in a bitter divorce.

In February 1999, however, a federal grand jury indicted both Russell and Littlejohn on charges of conspiracy, perjury and bankruptcy fraud. Prosecutors said the two women conspired to conceal assets from bankruptcy officials by hiding in Littlejohn's condo a table and chairs, an oriental rug, a Tiffany lamp and parts of an oak cabinet.

After a weeklong trial in May, both women were convicted.

In September, Merryday granted Littlejohn's request for a new trial. Last week, prosecutors decided to drop all remaining charges against Littlejohn and her case was dismissed.

Thursday, Merryday said there was little doubt that Russell was "author and executioner" of a series of acts constituting unlawful behavior.

In fact, though jurors never knew it, bankruptcy fraud was not the first crime Russell committed while involved in an acrimonious divorce that threatened her social and financial well-being.

In the summer of 1994, according to Pinellas County court records, the 5-foot, 1-inch, 105-pound Russell remarked to an acquaintance several times that she wanted to hire someone to make her estranged husband "disappear." The acquaintance contacted sheriff's detectives, who arranged for an undercover officer to meet with her at the Sunshine Mall in Clearwater.

There, Russell handed the officer a picture of her husband and cash to seal a $500 contract to have her husband beaten up. Russell specified that the beating result in at least "one broken bone."

Russell was convicted of solicitation to commit aggravated battery, given 18 months' probation and ordered to get mental health counseling.