|Mark A. Stites|
Judge Heidi Ladd also ordered Mark Stites, 64, to repay $5,000.01 to the estate of the woman from whom he stole over a period of years while he acted as her caretaker, power of attorney and tax preparer.
"He siphoned funds from a dependent, vulnerable, helpless, victim. He knew not to commingle the funds. He was draining her assets to the point she had to go on public aid," said Ladd.
Stites pleaded guilty in May to financial exploitation of a person over 80, admitting that between June 2007 and February 2013, he withdrew more than $5,000 from two bank accounts belonging to the woman and used it fraudulently.
The woman was 96 when she died in 2016, just three months after the criminal charges had been filed against Stites, and three years after the financial improprieties first came to light.
The veteran jurist expressed frustration that the paper trail presented her by Assistant State's Attorney Joel Fletcher and defense attorney Blake Weaver of Urbana could not paint a clear picture of what happened to the money that once belonged to the elderly widow who spent her last days in the Champaign County Nursing Home supported by taxpayers.
Ladd heard testimony that the woman's husband, who preceded her in death in 2007, left money to Stites to care for his wife. Some of it he intended for Stites; most was for the care of his wife, who needed long-term nursing care.
Testimony also showed that Stites combined money for the woman's care with his own business accounts, and did pay many of her expenses.
It was in 2013 when Stites sought advice from an attorney with the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation on how to get the woman on Medicaid, after an initial denial, that his mishandling of her money came to the attention of authorities.
That attorney, Valerie McWilliams, testified she thought that it was "extremely odd" given Stites' background as a professional bookkeeper and tax preparer that he would admit to commingling the woman's funds with his own.
She also felt, given what Stites had told her about the woman's assets and income, that she should have enough money to pay for her own care.
Ladd said she wanted the appellate court to know that she felt Stites had stolen far more from the woman but could not order a higher restitution figure because of the incompleteness of the evidence and the records that were before her.
After Stites' plea, Ladd heard evidence in aggravation and mitigation over two days as the attorneys attempted to come to a restitution figure.
Fletcher urged the judge to impose restitution of almost $315,000 while Weaver declined to offer an estimate, saying "somebody smarter than me will have to do that."
"I simply have no reasonable basis factually to determine what that is," Ladd said of the real loss.
Fletcher argued that Stites was in a "position of trust" and "routinely exploited that trust for years on end."
He told the judge he was not naive enough to think that Stites could or would repay the woman's estate the $315,000. He urged the judge to impose the eight-year sentence he agreed to at the time of Stites' plea. The most Stites could have received was 15 years in prison.
Weaver acknowledged Stites had "abused a fiduciary relationship" but reminded the judge of how Stites and his wife were at the beck and call of the woman for years and took on her care because she had no heirs.
He painted a picture of his client as someone in over his head who still didn't own his pickup truck or his own home, even after helping himself to the woman's money.
"I regret all that's happened. I don't understand a lot of it," Stites told Ladd, maintaining there was never any criminal intent on his part.
Ladd said Stites was minimizing his role and said as a business man educated in bookkeeping and tax preparation, that at the very least he knew not to combine the woman's assets with his own.
"In November 2011, he wrote three checks (from her account) for $155,000 and put it in his own work account. For him to commingle, shows he is up to no good," said Ladd. "I believe he took a large amount from her estate but I don't know how much."
Noting Stites' prior theft conviction for stealing from his employer in 2001 — that sentence included $88,000 in restitution — Ladd said he "didn't get the message the first time."
Stites was given credit on his sentence for 45 days already served. He is eligible for day-for-day good time in prison.
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Champaign man who swindled elderly woman in his care gets 7 years