TAMPA — David Land Whigham wanted all his life to be an attorney. Six years after graduating law school, with the help of a family loan, he established his own firm in upscale Hyde Park, specializing in estates, wills and trusts.
Some of his clients were parents whose children were physically disabled and needed help paying for medical treatments. Others were people who wanted to leave their savings to charity after they died.
In a courtroom on Friday morning, they were called victims.
Over the course of several years, prosecutors said Whigham dipped into his clients' funds to pay his business and personal expenses. All told, he stole $2.2 million.
Whigham, 51, pleaded guilty in November to nine counts of grand theft, one for each former client. A prosecutor asked Friday for a sentence of 20 years in prison, plus restitution.
"These are not your typical victims and the defendant for years on end preyed on them," Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Marisa Pupello told the court. "Each of them was personally emotionally harmed."
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Whigham's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Jospeph Larrinaga, asked for a sentence of less than the 11 years in prison suggested by state guidelines. He noted a psychologist's report that Whigham was diagnosed with major depression and alcoholism.
The defendant stood silently throughout the three-hour sentencing hearing Friday, at times breathing deeply, swallowing hard, and closing his eyes. He spoke briefly, struggling to find words that seemed adequate.
"I can't explain why I made the decisions I did," he said. "I promise the court I'll dedicate the rest of my life to making restitution."
The thefts were uncovered after Whigham repeatedly failed to distribute more than $900,000 that one of his clients held in a trust for a relative. After the relative died in 2011, the money was supposed to be given to the Shriners Hospital for Children and a schizophrenia research foundation.
But for more than five years, representatives from the Shriners repeatedly asked why the hospitals had not received the money. Whigham offered excuses, blamed the accountant in charge of the trust, blamed it on the court clerk, and eventually stopped responding altogether.
In 2016, he admitted to an attorney for the Shriners that the money was gone. When asked where it went, he said he had used it to pay office expenses.
The Florida Bar subsequently suspended his law license. He was later permanently disbarred.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators conducted a year-long probe into Whigham's finances in 2016. They identified nine victims, all of whom had entrusted Whigham with their money.
There was an 11-year-old boy with chronic physical and memory problems due to injuries he suffered after a car accident. Whigham took $216,000 from him.
There was a woman who had been severely disabled since birth, whose medical expenses exceeded $17,000 a month. Whigham took $289,000 from her.
By the time the thefts were discovered, the victims' accounts had been nearly depleted.
"He chose his victims carefully," said Special Agent Patty Thompson, who was a state investigator on the case and testified Friday. "He chose these victims because he knew they were vulnerable."
The lawyer used the stolen funds to pay for his home mortgage, restaurant meals, fishing trips, vacations, hunting and shooting excursions and his family's personal expenses. Some of the expenses that investigators noted were eye-catching: $11,000 for a hotel stay in Costa Rica; $2,700 to the University of South Florida Bulls Club; $3,800 for firearms ammunition.
Although he offered no explanations, Whigham's family members gave the court a glimpse at a possible motive.
When he started his law firm, they testified, he did it with a loan from his wife's parents. When his business started to go south, he feared bankruptcy would cause them to lose their home. His family noticed he started drinking more. He seemed depressed.
Near the end, they told the court he tried to pay back some of the money he had taken. But it wasn't nearly enough.
"I believe what happened was a desperate man trying to protect his family," said Sharon Whigham, his younger sister. "He started acting irrationally and drinking too much ... At some point you realize you're in too deep and there's nothing you can do."
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash said he would sentence David Whigham on Monday morning.
Contact Dan Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.