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Grandma accused of spending girl's money

By CHRIS TISCH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Trellis Flemmings knew the value of insurance.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Trellis Flemmings knew the value of insurance.

An aspiring schoolteacher, Flemmings attended college and also worked in a 24-hour claims department at Allstate Insurance, where she took out a life insurance policy.

When Flemmings, 20, was killed in a car accident three years ago, her 2-year-old daughter was set to receive more than $100,000 in insurance benefits. That money could be used for college or whatever the girl desired when she turned 18.

A judge appointed Flemmings' mother, Loletia Lawton, personal representative of Flemmings' estate and legal protector of the $104,326 the insurance company paid out. Lawton also was appointed guardian of Flemmings' daughter.

Lawton, 48, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of taking nearly $100,000 of the money and using it for personal expenses. In less than two years, Lawton used the money to buy cars, refurbish her home, start a business and loan money to family members, prosecutors said.

By the time an attorney representing Flemmings' estate found out what was going on, only about $4,900 remained, prosecutors said.

"The personal representative's sole effort and interest is supposed to be to protect the minor. If that's not followed, that's certainly a tragedy," said Jeffrey Chambers, the attorney who reported the missing money. "It's what everyone tries to avoid, and you hate seeing and reading about it."

Lawton, 3145 19th Ave. S., is charged with grand theft. She was released from the Pinellas County Jail on Thursday after posting $5,000 bail. She said she is innocent of the charges.

"I think they are targeting me unfairly and that I am a victim," Lawton said Friday.

Regarding the prosecutors' case against her, Lawton said, "That's their word against ours."

Prosecutors find themselves in a difficult position.

Lawton is still the girl's legal guardian, and seeking a harsh sentence for Grandma could have a negative affect on the child. For that reason, prosecutors don't plan to seek prison time for Lawton.

"We certainly don't want to put the child in a position where there's no care for her," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. "I can't tell you I've ever seen a case like this."

Lawton's attorney, Frank Louderback, called it "an unfortunate situation that hopefully will be resolved in everyone's best interest."

Flemmings was killed in March 1998 as she drove to work.

Two men who were out on a joy ride in a friend's green Corvette crossed the median of I-275 near Fifth Avenue N and slammed into Flemmings' car. The two men also died in the crash.

Lawton filed a claim with the insurance company two weeks after her daughter's death, then petitioned the probate court for administration of her daughter's estate.

Lawton also told the insurance company that she was the "sole surviving heir and next of kin," prosecutors said.

But the insurance company knew about Flemmings' daughter. The money went to Flemmings' estate and was earmarked for the girl. A judge appointed Lawton estate representative in July 1998, and she received the money over the next two months.

She was supposed to provide the money to the estate, but she deposited the money into her accounts and spent it, prosecutors said.

Chambers, who had been retained to investigate the fatal crash, discovered that the money was missing two years later. Lawton later admitted to investigators that she had taken the money, prosecutors said.

A judge booted Lawton off Flemmings' estate and named attorney Fletch Belcher as successor.

Belcher is now trying to get the girl's money back. He already has added $10,000 to the girl's account by collecting a bond that Lawton put up when she was appointed estate representative.

Belcher also plans to sue the banks where Lawton is accused of depositing the money. He said the banks should not have allowed her to deposit the checks, which were made payable to Flemmings' estate, into her personal accounts.

Chambers, meanwhile, has settled with the insurance company of the driver of the car that hit Flemmings. That money is frozen in a trust account. A claim also is pending against the car's owner, which could add to the girl's savings. "Hopefully, some of the assets can be recovered for the little girl," Belcher said.

- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.

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