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Woman pleads guilty to bilking elderly woman


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000

DADE CITY -- A woman accused of burning a Polk County mobile home with her children inside in 1998 pleaded guilty Monday to an unrelated charge that she cheated a 79-year-old woman out of more than $14,000.

Cheryl Lynn Burns, 37, was sentenced Monday to 14 months in prison. With credit for the year she spent in jail awaiting trial and state laws requiring inmates serve 85 percent of their sentences, her attorney said it's likely her sentence would amount to no more time than she has already served.

Since Burns' arrest on two counts of first-degree murder, arson and four counts of aggravated child abuse in October 1998, she has been held in jails in Pasco and Polk counties. Investigators say she admitted setting the fire that killed her son, Benjamin, 7, and another boy, Jeremy Johnson, 11, at her parents' home in a Lakeland suburb.

The fire also injured her two other children and her father. Her trial is set for Aug. 28 in Polk County.

In Pasco, prosecutors charged Burns in March 1999 with cheating a 79-year-old Zephyrhills woman she had been caring for before the arson incident.

According to a report by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Burns ran a yearlong con on Mary Fitzpatrick. The woman hired Burns in June 1997 to help care for her. According to reports, Burns was paid $12 an hour to clean, cook, run errands and handle the woman's finances.

But, investigators say, Burns had the woman sign numerous blank checks, then made them out to herself and cashed them.

When confronted, Burns confessed to stealing at least $5,000 -- although authorities think the total was more like $14,000 -- and said she stole Fitzpatrick's bank statements and canceled checks, destroying them to keep from being found out, authorities said.

Burns was set to face trial Monday, but instead entered a guilty plea. In addition to the prison sentence, Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb ordered Burns to pay $305 in court costs and $15,000 in restitution.

Her appointed attorney, John Rine, said the sentence was within state guidelines. He said the verdict did not affect the pending charges in Polk County.

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