A 55-year-old Clovis woman, who authorities said preyed on grieving, elderly victims by stealing their life savings, was sentenced Wednesday to six years in Fresno County Jail.
In a plea agreement, Sharon Elaine Harrison pleaded no contest in Fresno County Superior Court to four felony counts of theft of an elderly person.
Judge Don Penner could have sentenced Harrelson to three years in jail and three years of supervised release, as the county Probation Department recommended. But the judge said Harrelson's crimes were so despicable that he sentenced her to six years in the local jail.
"These were vulnerable victims," Penner said, noting that Harrelson's crimes occurred over a long period of time and took "sophistication and planning."
A shackled Harrelson didn't respond.
Sheriff's detectives contend Harrelson duped elderly people into paying her directly for long-term care planning, insurance and funeral arrangements. But instead of arranging for the services, Harrelson lined her own pockets, sheriff's officials said.
When Harrelson was arrested in March, Sheriff Margaret Mims said detectives believed that Harrelson embezzled more than $1 million from senior victims.
Her plea deal, however, covered four criminal cases with eight victims who were cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars, prosecutor Tim Donovan said.
"She's a thief and a crook," Donovan said.
What made Harrelson dangerous, Donovan said, was that "she's bright, intelligent and a good salesperson" who used various scams to take the victims' money.
One of the victims was 83-year-old Ila Howe, who said Harrelson stole from her while helping her with long-term care planning after Howe's husband died. Harrelson stole $60,000 from Howe, Donovan said.
"I don't believe she has remorse," Howe told the judge. "It took a lifetime to save that money. Now I have no safety net."
Harrelson's lawyer, Frank Gash, however, said his client is remorseful and hopes to one day pay restitution to the victims. He said his client is hard to figure out because she was active in her community and did fundraising for her church.
Penner noted that Harrelson had several supporters who wrote letters on her behalf. But the judge said he was troubled by the fact that Harrelson would befriend elderly people in their time of grief.
One victim became so distraught, Penner said, she couldn't go to church because she felt bad that she couldn't give an offering.
Harrelson scammed the people while employed by Soutas & Associates, a Fresno firm that assists the elderly with long-term care, Mims said at the time of Harrelson's arrest. Once the business learned that Harrelson was embezzling from the company, the business reported it to law enforcement, Mims said.
In the cases where Harrelson committed fraud, Soutas & Associates and Chapel of the Light funeral home honored the victims' contracts, the sheriff said.