Old age doesn't get man off hook

An 85-year-old man with cancer receives the minimum sentence of five years for shooting at a woman's house.

Published July 22, 2006

LARGO - Donald Keehn, 85, came to court Friday hoping his age and failing health would keep him from prison.

Keehn was dressed in old-man checkered pants, a striped shirt and white sneakers. Gray hair squiggled from his ears and nose. He leaned in close, hand cupped to ear, whenever someone spoke to him. He said "watchacallit" a lot when he couldn't remember things. He seemed harmless.

But last year, on five occasions over five months, Keehn puttered his silver Mercury Grand Marquis past the home of a woman who owed him money and fired bullets into it. No one was hurt, but the woman was left quite shaken. One bullet pierced her sofa.

Friday afternoon, Keehn shuffled before Judge Doug Baird. His attorney asked the judge to give him probation instead of the prison term required by sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors asked for the minimum: five years in prison.

"If I get it," he said before the hearing, "you might as well just sentence me to death."

But five years in prison is just what Baird gave Keehn, who has no previous criminal record.

"I understand Mr. Keehn is elderly. I have great sympathy for that," Baird said. "But his age does not make it any less serious."

As bailiffs fingerprinted Keehn and prepared to take him to jail, he leveled his eyes at the prosecutor on the case and said: "I hope you're happy, you b------!"

Keehn wears a catheter and a diaper. He suffers from prostate cancer, heart problems, depression and, possibly, early stages of dementia.

Florida Corrections Department officials said they will evaluate Keehn to determine whether he should be housed at a facility that has a hospital attached. He also could be placed among pockets of elderly inmates, though there is no guarantee he won't be detained in the same facility as hardened criminals.

"Prison is prison. However, if he was in danger he could be isolated for his own protection," said JoEllyn Rackleff, a Corrections Department spokeswoman. "We would certainly make sure he wasn't victimized."

Keehn, whose family members live up north, spent years in the Silver Lake Mobile Home Resort in St. Petersburg. He was something of a go-to guy in the park. If people needed a loan or something repaired, they often went to Keehn. He also frequently drove to Ruskin to pick fresh fruit and vegetables, which he shared with neighbors.

One of his neighbors was Virginia "Missy" Prittslawton, 67, who Keehn said was having some financial difficulties after a divorce. He loaned her about $7,000, which she never repaid.

Keehn had been friends with Prittslawton and often watched her dog, Tilly, while she worked. He also bought Prittslawton a new water heater, he said.

The friendship soured when Keehn didn't get his money back. He took the case to court, where a judge ordered Prittslawton to pay $4,300 plus interest.

Unbeknownst to Keehn, Prittslawton is a convicted felon who served nearly four years in prison for theft in Arizona. She also has arrests in Texas and Florida on charges of forgery and fraud.

Keehn said he decided to shoot at Prittslawton's home to scare her. He used a .22-caliber pistol that was assigned to him when he briefly worked as a deputy sheriff in Joliet, Ill., years ago, he said.

"If I wanted to (hurt her) I had the key to her house," he said. "I could have walked in the front door. I made a mistake. I was stupid for doing what I did."

The shootings began in March of 2005 and continued for several months. There were five in all; a total of 15 bullets were fired. Prittslawton was home during all the shootings, which broke windows and pierced walls. She began staying with a friend.

A team of Pinellas deputies began to watch the home. On Aug. 16, they heard shots and saw Keehn's silver Mercury rolling away, never exceeding the 15-mph speed limit.

Deputies apprehended him and found the gun. He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail and charged with five felony counts of shooting into an occupied dwelling, which carries a maximum of 75 years in prison. Keehn remained at the jail for nearly a month before his bail was reduced from $130,000 to $20,000.

Before his release, he told a jail psychologist that he would try again to shoot and kill Prittslawton, said Assistant State Attorney Aaron Slavin.

But he never did. He eventually moved from the park into an assisted living facility.

Judges can depart from sentencing guidelines for several reasons, but old age is not one of them.

"I don't care if you're 85 years old or 8 years old, if you pick up a gun, put bullets in it and point it in someone's direction and fire, that's pretty serious," Slavin said.

Prittslawton, her hands shaking as she wrung a tissue, told the judge of the terror she has endured.

"I've been very afraid," she said. "I was home every time. ... It wasn't just a building. It was my home."

Baird appeared anguished as he announced the sentence. "There are consequences for this kind of thing," he said.

Keehn had to lean close to his attorney to hear her relay the decision.