Pinellas properties management worker

pleads no contest to felony grand theft charge

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Lorri Helfand

Published June 16, 2010

LARGO The woman accused of stealing more than $1 million from 20 homeowner groups threw herself on the mercy of the court Wednesday.

Residents who have struggled to deal with those losses aren't feeling so merciful.

"We'd like to see her prosecuted to the full extent of the law," said Richard Sittler, president of Sunfish Bay Condominium Association in Clearwater, which lost about $300,000.

Wearing a yellow blouse and loose-fitting jeans, Catherine McMullen, 47, appeared calm as she pleaded no contest to a felony grand theft charge.

Her plea means she did not admit guilt but won't present a defense. She likely will be penalized as if she pleaded guilty.

McMullen, who controlled finances for the company that managed the association accounts, could serve anywhere from 21 months to 30 years, according to sentencing guidelines.

Judge Joseph A. Bulone scheduled her sentencing for Sept. 10. He said McMullen's husband, Mac McMullen, an Army Reserve officer who used to be a spokesman for the Largo Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, wants to be at the sentencing, but he can't be there until late August.

Catherine McMullen, who worked for Buxton Properties in Largo since 2001, was arrested in March 2009. She told police that she shifted money from various association bank accounts to Buxton's accounts and ultimately to herself. She told Largo police Detective Lara Young she spent much of the money on things like a 2007 Dodge Charger for her son, dinners out, spa trips, rents and cell phone and credit card bills.

Until March 2009, none of the associations noticed anything amiss. Neither did Buxton Properties owner Brian Buxton.

McMullen created fake bank statements for them by copying the statements onto her computer and changing the numbers.

The scheme unravelled when Sunfish Bay did a mini audit last year. Buxton met with association board member Paul Frey at First Community Bank in Pinellas Park and noticed that the bank records and the statements McMullen provided didn't match.

At first, Buxton thought there was a mistake. He called McMullen to come to the bank. She did not arrive. So he called several more times. A while later, he received a text message from her saying, "they will not match i made them up borrowing to keep company open i am so sorry, ends now," according to Largo police.

Minutes later, police were dispatched to McMullen's home. Paramedics said she had taken 13 diuretic pills used to treat high blood pressure. There was a kitchen knife in the bed and there were "hesitation" marks on the inside of her left wrist, police said.

A week later, McMullen admitted to taking hundreds of thousands of dollars for family expenses. She was arrested and later released on $30,000 bail.

McMullen's attorney, John Trevena, said his client is "upset that she has been demonized by many of the condo association members."

As she was leaving the courthouse Wednesday, he said, one woman "approached her and berated her with not so nice language, in front of her son, and called her a lot of unpleasant names."

Trevena mentioned Brian Buxton's deposition three months ago, where Buxton said he owned a Maxum boat, two antique cars and an airplane with a partner.

"While she understands (the residents) frustration, she'd like them to know she is truly apologetic and remorseful and there's a person who could make them whole, Mr. Buxton. He clearly has the resources to make all of these people whole," Trevena said.

Said Buxton's attorney Sean McQuaid: "Unfortunately, we live in a world of reality, not fantasyland. That is preposterous and completely inaccurate. Maybe instead of Brian cutting a check to cover the losses, maybe Mrs. McMullen should write a check since she's the one who benefited from the losses."

Residents say they just want the nightmare over with.

"This woman has affected the lives of hundreds of people," Sittler said. "We feel she has all of the rights and we have no rights."

At least a dozen associations, from Gulfport to Clearwater, lost between $35,000 and $300,000.

Five have filed suits against McMullen and Buxton Properties. Many say their insurance claims have been denied. Others say they've been compensated for just part of their losses. Some residents say they've had to write checks for hundreds or thousands of dollars to cover daily bills or repairs.

"This gal has had the life of Riley for somewhere around four years," said Jim Goss, 81, vice president of Greenbriar III Condominium Association in Clearwater. "She's put an awful lot of people through an awful lot of misery."

Pinellas County homeowner, condo groups haunted by theft case