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Deputies call elderly fraud case unfounded

Pasco sheriff's detectives have dropped their investigation of a Port Richey man accused of bilking an elderly woman of thousands of dollars.

The outcome prompted the man, Donald Hughes, to criticize the St. Petersburg Times for detailing the accusations in an article Sunday.

"I just feel like I've been drug through the mud over hearsay," he said Thursday.

Hughes, 38, was on probation for a previous charge of exploiting the elderly when the woman sent him $159,000, though she had never met him.

The money was to have funded the purchase of two houses that the woman planned to rent out as investments.

The woman, Katie Barr, died in August at 81. Her sister, who came to Barr's New Port Richey home from West Virginia to settle the estate, accused Hughes of mishandling the money. She said Barr had suffered from the early stages of Alzheimer's. The Sheriff's Office opened an investigation into the matter in July.

The Times found that Hughes bought two houses, but only one was put in Barr's name. Public records indicated that from Barr's investment of $159,000, her estate was left with one house with an assessed value of $65,268.

Detectives cleared the case Sept. 8, calling it unfounded, sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin said this week. Barr's doctors told detectives that her mind was sound.

"They spoke with three doctors," he said, "all of which said she was mentally competent to make decisions for herself."

The doctors' statements took away the basis for a criminal charge, Tobin said.

Hughes said he doesn't blame the Sheriff's Office for checking out the allegations.

"I don't have any hard feelings against them," he said.

Barr's sister, Shirley Harkins, said that she wasn't aware the Sheriff's Office had dropped the case until called by a reporter.

"Just because they talked to a doctor and he said Katie was all right," she said. "A doctor doesn't see a patient over five minutes at a time."

Harkins said with the sheriff's investigation closed, she likely will pursue the matter in civil court.

"I really feel that they think because I live in West Virginia that I'll just go off and forget about it," she said. "But I'm not going to forget about it."

Steve Thompson covers crime in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is sthompsonsptimes.com.

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