David Olson used to stroll to the front of the courtroom like the other lawyers.
Now he sits in the back like the other defendants.
The 59-year-old ex-attorney accused of stealing almost $200,000 from his clients came to court Thursday morning to make a difficult choice: defend himself at trial or plead no contest to the criminal charges, leaving his fate up to the judge.
He chose not to contest the charges.
Now his victims face a choice: demand that their former lawyer be locked up, or ask the judge to keep Olson out of prison so he can pay them back.
"That's why most of the victims are in favor of probation," said his defense attorney, Daniel Rock.
The state isn't. Olson faces 17 charges of grand theft. The most serious carries a sentence of 15 years in prison. Add the charges together - however unlikely he is to receive such a sentence - and the total is 105 years.
"We expect he'll be treated like anyone else who steals money," said Assistant State Attorney James Goodnow.
Senior victims' advocate Kathy Cornwell was also in court Thursday, representing one of Olson's victims. Cornwell said that victim is leaning toward keeping the ex-lawyer out of prison.
"It is a tough one," Cornwell said. "But (the victim) doesn't want to stop people from getting back thousands of dollars."
That's what authorities say Olson took from his clients from 2002 to 2005. The money came from such things as funds he was supposed to be holding for property and estate sales and retainers for his services.
His law license was suspended in 2005. He was disbarred in 2006. He was arrested in January 2007.
Where did the money go? His lawyer said it disappeared down the "black hole" of Olson's gambling addiction.
"I realize why the state wants to ask for prison time," Rock said. "But Mr. Olson has a serious gambling problem that when explained to the clients, most understood that it is a disease."
Rock said Olson has already paid about $70,000 back to former clients. But Olson still owes up to $130,000, both to his victims and to the Florida Bar Clients' Security Fund. The fund reimburses those who have been ripped off by their lawyers. Olson would reimburse the fund for what it has paid out to his victims.
To pay back all that, Rock said Olson and his wife, Carolyn, would have to mortgage their $266,917 New Port Richey home. But if her husband gets sent to prison, Rock said, then Olson's wife won't agree to it.
Sentencing is set for March 6 in front of Circuit Judge Thane Covert. Instead of prison, Rock said he'll ask for 10 to 15 years' probation for Olson.
"He'll have the chance to pay them and they will be paid within 30 days of sentencing," Rock said.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.