By LIBBY CLUETT
PALO PINTO – Writing hot checks has resulted in a Palo Pinto County jury assessing Paula Kay Freeman, 43, with a $10,000 fine and a 75-year sentence in prison.
Freeman had already pleaded guilty in court, according to Palo Pinto County District Attorney Mike Burns, who said the defendant asked to be sentenced by a jury. The trial to assess her punishment took all day Tuesday. Burns said jurors deliberated for an estimate 40 minutes on Wednesday before assessing her punishment.
In addition to the time and fine, Palo Pinto County District Judge Mike Moore added $27,300 in resitution – the amount of hot checks Freeman wrote on a 73-year-old
Palo Pinto County resident’s account, according to Burns.
He explained that the defendant, currently a Corsicana resident, worked as a cook at the Crazy Water Retirement Hotel from January to August 2012.
“She passed 66 fraudulent checks on [the senior man’s] account for a $27,300 total loss,” Burns said. “This was a 73-year-old, three-time Vietnam veteran, who retired after 23 years of active service in the Army.”
Burns explained some facts that came out in trial included that the defendant “worked as an employee [cook] in the Crazy Water Retirement Hotel in 2012 and had access to residents’ rooms. The State produced evidence that she stole mutliple books of this 73-year-old man’s checking account.”
Burns explained that between that January-to-August period, Freeman used the 66 checks to purchase “merchandise at Walmart.”
“She ceased her employment when the Crazy Water closed and lived on [the victim’s] checking account. Her husband was in on this and he is also charge, we haven’t gotten to his case,” Burns said.
“The way they did this was by using the system at Walmart.”
He explained that the store has a “machine that checks the electronic numbers on a check. It doesn’t look at the balance, and they do not ask for ID – it’s Walmart policy, that’s what the evidence was according to witnesses from Walmart. The only way they will ask for ID is if an account is flagged. They do not unilaterally ask for ID.”
“It was not until August of 2012 when one of his daughters took him to the bank, from the new nursing home, and cashed a check and noticed a substantial amout was missing [from the 73-year-old man’s account],” Burns said. “They bought between $400-$600 of merchandise [each of the 66 times], much of which was returmed to the store for cash.”
“It was one of the most despicable, egregious acts against the elderly I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this job,” Burns said. “A man who spent three times in a combat zone. This was half of his life’s savings.”
Burns noted that this type of first-degree felony has a sentence range from 5 years to 99 years or life and a maximum fine of $10,000. Freeman could be eligible for parole in 18.75 years, or sooner with “good-time credit,” he said. “She could do 15 years and stays on parole for the entire 75 years.”
Burns explained that jurors heard testimony on Freeman’s past.
“She’s been convicted of crimes since 1996 – the past 17 years,” he said, adding that the defandant had four penitentiary stays, including one in Texas for “credit card abuse and hindering apprehension of a known felon,” twice in Oklahoma for “theft by bogus check” and a stay in federal prison for “possession of a sawed-off shotgun.”
“The jury heard further testimony that she had seven other convictions, ranging from perjury to theft.” he added. “She was a habitual criminal.”
Burns noted that Freeman’s husband, Timothy James Thetford, 30, also of Corsicana, “is indicted with the same charge. They worked in tandem.”
“This verdict exemplifies our commit to protect the elderly in our community,” Burns said. “And the jury made a statement that crimes against the elderly are not well received in Palo Pinto County.”