Former Largo woman gets eight years
in $1 million embezzlement scheme
Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times
By Lorri Helfand
Published September 17, 2010
LARGO — The judge apparently didn't buy the claims that abuse absolved her of guilt for stealing as much as $1.2 million from her boss and 18 homeowner associations throughout Pinellas County.
Friday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone sentenced Catherine McMullen to eight years in prison.
"This was a deliberate, premeditated, continuous and repeated scheme that occurred over and over and over again, over a long period of time, which caused a lot of pain and anguish for a great number of people," Bulone said.
McMullen, 48, worked for Buxton Properties in Largo for eight years. Until her arrest in March 2009, she had sole control of the finances for the associations Buxton managed.
She admitted to stealing less than $500,000 through a complicated shell game, which involved transferring funds among association and Buxton accounts. Authorities estimated she took more than twice that amount.
McMullen pleaded no contest to grand theft in June.
About 30 residents came to the Criminal Justice Center to see her sentencing fate Friday. Several urged the judge to give McMullen the maximum sentence of 30 years.
Bulone acknowledged mitigating circumstances, such as no prior record, and an acceptance of responsibility by entering a plea. He also noted that she had some mental health issues and gave a full confession after she got caught.
McMullen, who spent much of the sentencing staring soberly ahead, said she wasn't sure why she took the money except maybe to make her family happy.
"Words alone cannot express how sorry I am," said McMullen, a former Largo resident.
Her husband, Mac McMullen, told the court he was trying to make sense of why his wife did what she did.
"This was totally out of character," said her husband, an Army Reserve colonel and a former spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Largo Police Department.
Mac McMullen, who had served in Iraq and was living in Arizona during much of the time the money was taken, apologized in court to her boss, Brian Buxton, and the association residents.
From at least 2006 to 2009, McMullen stole from the accounts to cover bills for herself, her husband and her two sons, now 21 and 24, authorities said.
McMullen's attorney, John Trevena, presented evidence theorizing that sexual and mental abuse by her father may have caused conditions that predisposed her to commit the crime.
An expert witness diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder and borderline personality disorder and said probation and therapy were the best options for her.
"This was a situation where she had valid, legitimate, documented mental health issues that could mitigate her sentence," Trevena said.
Her boss, Brian Buxton, 65, a cancer survivor, said McMullen's actions took a toll on his health and finances and caused irreparable damage to his reputation.
Residents of the communities, several of which lost $35,000 to more than $200,000, told the judge how they were forced to figure out how to cover repairs and day-to-day expenses.
John Lenges, president of the Villas of Pinellas Farms association in Pinellas Park, said residents, many of them elderly and on fixed incomes, weren't eating or sleeping right since they learned of the theft.
Richard Sittler, president of Sunfish Bay association in Clearwater, said McMullen took about $217,000 from his association.
"She was living high on the hog while our residents were suffering," he said.
Bulone said he agreed with residents, who told him, "If she hadn't gotten caught, she'd still be doing this."
The sentence also included a restitution lien of more than $540,000. Some losses were paid by insurance companies and the restitution judgment didn't include those claims, but may in the future.
After the sentencing, several residents said they were satisfied.
"I'm glad she got eight years," said Carol Gray of Sunfish Bay. "I think it was a fair judgment."