By William R. Levesque, St. Petersburg Times
Published: July 13, 2000

A man who stole from the elderly pleads guilty after opening arguments.

Terry Lee Statton listened impassively Wednesday morning as prosecutors told jurors how he stole nearly $1-million from more than 30 elderly victims from Brevard County to St. Petersburg.

After prosecutors Glenn Martin and Garry Potts outlined their case during opening statements in Statton’s criminal trial, the court broke for lunch.

When everyone returned, Statton decided he had heard enough.

Statton, 51, of St. Pete Beach, unexpectedly pleaded guilty to 56 felony charges stemming from a scheme dating to the early 1990s to exploit elderly people into parting with their savings.

The plea quickly ended a trial that was expected to last as long as two weeks.

Prosecutors say Statton, an insurance agent, sold investments in a company that didn’t exist. He also was accused of selling services, such as lawn maintenance and housekeeping, to homebound people who never received what they paid for.

In a negotiated plea with prosecutors, Statton will be sentenced to eight years in prison on July 27 by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada.

Statton’s attorneys, Frank and Joe McDermott, approached prosecutors during the lunch break and proposed the plea even before they presented their own opening statement. Prosecutors accepted.

Martin said, “We decided to accept the plea because it was a sentence he could have received at the conclusion of the trial anyway even if he had been convicted.”

Since his scheme, and the criminal case, dated to the early 1990s when state sentencing guidelines were much more generous, especially on charges involving exploitation of the elderly, Statton faced only eight to 13 years in prison if convicted at trial, Martin said.

Under newer and stricter sentencing laws, anyone committing similar crimes today would potentially face a life sentence.

“Timing in life is everything,” Martin said.

The McDermotts said their client actually faced up to 30 years in prison. Quesada, they noted, could have exceeded state sentencing guidelines, especially in a case with vulnerable victims.

Statton, free on $100,000 bail pending sentencing, declined to comment.

“Mr. Statton is relieved,” Frank McDermott said. “He was facing the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence when we decided to approach the state and try to resolve this. We’re happy with the outcome.”

He said previous plea negotiations never amounted to anything. He was surprised at the outcome.

“Prosecutors initially told us all bets were off once the jury was seated,” McDermott said.

Statton pleaded guilty to charges that included racketeering, a scheme to defraud, exploitation of the elderly, the unlawful sale of insurance and the sale of securities by an unregistered dealer.

In about September 1993, Statton began selling service contracts to the elderly, many of whom were his legitimate insurance clients. Some of the people he sold contracts to, prosecutors said, weren’t capable of making financial decisions because of senility.

He also solicited investments into his company, which prosecutors say didn’t exist.

His victims were scattered all over the state, in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Brevard, Hernando and Manatee counties.

“He gained their trust,” Martin told jurors. “He knew their desires and wants and he played on those.”

The money went straight into Statton’s personal bank account, prosecutors said. With their cash, he lavished trips on himself – to Las Vegas, San Francisco and Europe – and bought cars and paid personal expenses.

Some of his victims since have died. Many are too sick to come to court. At the time of the plea, none of his victims or their families were present.

Martin said Statton relied on his victims’ advanced age to protect him.

“Mr. Statton had no intention of paying back” his victims, Martin said. “It was his plan to hold out until these people passed away.”

As a condition of the plea, Statton must pay restitution.