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Published: Thursday, 10/23/2008

McConnell charged with 1 count of theft; amount stolen put at $500,000-$1M

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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Karyn McConnell Hancock, an ex-lawyer and former Toledo councilman who has been the focus of a long investigation by the Lucas County prosecutor's office, was charged yesterday with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her former clients.

A county grand jury indicted Ms. McConnell Hancock, 36, on one count of aggravated theft for allegedly taking funds from her clients over a six-year period. The indictment released yesterday alleged that between Jan. 1, 2002, and Nov. 30, 2007, she stole between $500,000 and $1 million.

If convicted, she could face up to eight years in prison.

Authorities said that while representing clients, Ms. McConnell Hancock became embroiled in a situation where she was purportedly stealing funds from one client to pay back the money that she had already taken from another. The indictment does not state exactly how much money Ms. McConnell Hancock is alleged to have stolen.

"That's the ultimate question, where the money went," her attorney Jerry Phillips said, adding that some of the money went to support Ms. McConnell Hancock's legal practice - and some to her daily lifestyle expenses.

"It was over a period of time, a number of years," he added. "The problem became that she would keep moving money to take care of someone else, and that's how the dollars went up."

The prosecutor's office has identified a total of 23 alleged victims, including several who have since filed civil lawsuits against her claiming that she settled claims on their behalf but did not give them the full settlement checks.

At least 12 of the alleged victims have been identified as Ms. McConnell Hancock's clients in Lucas County Probate Court. In July, a report released by the court indicated that Ms. McConnell Hancock stole nearly $335,000 from estates she represented.

Mr. Phillips said yesterday that the amount taken from the various clients is higher than the actual loss suffered by the victims because in some cases, Ms. McConnell Hancock returned money.

He added that while investigators might know the amount involved, the actual loss has not yet been determined.

John Weglian, chief of the special units division for the prosecutor's office, said that although several victims were identified, state law requires that the charges be lumped together. That's why Ms. McConnell Hancock was charged with one count of aggravated theft versus several lower felony theft charges, he said.

"The statute says that a series of theft offenses that occurs under similar circumstances is considered a continuous course of conduct, which means you have to aggregate the charges," he said. He added that by adding the offenses together, the dollar amount allegedly stolen was elevated to more than $500,000, as was charged in the indictment.

Mr. Phillips said his client was aware of the impending charge and had cooperated throughout the investigation by opening up her files to authorities. He said that, if possible, Ms. McConnell Hancock intends to plead guilty to the charge at her arraignment, which has not yet been scheduled.

A judge will be assigned to her criminal case but authorities said that a visiting judge likely will be called in to oversee the case because of Ms. McConnell Hancock's work in the courthouse, as well as the fact that her father is Judge C. Allen McConnell of Toledo Municipal Court.

Mr. Phillips added that there is no evidence anyone else was involved.

According to the reports involving the alleged victims in probate court, Ms. McConnell Hancock used her legal escrow account, or Interest on Lawyers Trust Account, to inappropriately deposit and withdraw funds. The investigation revealed that Ms. McConnell Hancock would deposit money from her clients' estates into the account but only legally paid out small portions of it.

The reports labeled the rest of the funds as "missing."

The first of the victims of alleged theft to be identified was the estate of Rodney Coley, Sr., who was killed in his home in February, 2006. Ms. McConnell Hancock admitted in a consent agreement filed in Probate Court in January that she embezzled more than $130,000 from the murdered man's estate.

To date, the case is the only one in which Ms. McConnell Hancock has admitted any guilt. Mr. Phillips said yesterday that his client intends to admit to each of the thefts when arraigned on the charge.

Those clients who investigators have identified as alleged victims of theft have been advised to file a claim with the Client Security Fund of the Supreme Court of Ohio. The fund is made up of money from registration fees paid by Ohio's attorneys and is used to reimburse those who have experienced a loss by an attorney who has been disciplined for the action.

Mr. Phillips said investigators will eventually determine the actual loss on the basis of claims made, either locally or through the Client Security Fund.

Crystal Whitlow, whose mother's estate was identified by Probate Court as among the victims of theft, said yesterday that Ms. McConnell Hancock's indictment does not erase the months of frustration she felt when she was trying to get someone to help her after her attorney stopped returning calls.

Ms. Whitlow said she is looking forward to finally having her say, even if it is just in front of the committee in charge of the Client Security Fund.

"What do I think about it? I mean I do believe in justice," Ms. Whitlow said. "I'm not saying she should get life, but she should get something - even a simple call or a letter of an apology, something to those people who she betrayed."

Ms. McConnell Hancock, who entered the practice of law on May 11, 1999, sent a letter to the Ohio Supreme Court earlier this year to resign as an attorney. Her resignation came on the same day - Jan. 29 - that she was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of making false alarms.

That charge evolved from her admission that she fabricated a story of being kidnapped from downtown Toledo and dropped off in Georgia in early December. As a result of the conviction, Ms. McConnell Hancock was sentenced April 9 to two years of probation with a three month jail sentence suspended, a $300 fine, and 40 hours of community service.

The mother of two children, Ms. McConnell Hancock served as a Toledo city councilman from 2003 to 2005, when she lost her bid for reelection.

Just prior to her loss at the polls, she was caught on a police officer's in-car camera in June, 2005, asking for "professional courtesy" several times to avoid being ticketed in a no stopping, tow-away zone.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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