83-year-old victim gets last word in elder theft

FRESNO, Calif.

Judge Don Penner called Sharon Harrelson's crimes "despicable". The 55-year old claimed at least eight victims before she was caught in March.

Ila Howe and her husband were both civil servants and saved their money for decades. After her husband passed away, Ila still had a house and a good chunk of money. But after she met Sharon Harrelson, she was left with nothing.

Howe had her best day in several months on Wednesday. The 83-year-old watched the woman who took her life savings sentenced to six years in jail. But after losing $60,000 to Harrelson, Howe has suffered through a lot of bad days.

"I [had to] give up my own home and went to live in a tiny mobile [home] with my daughter-in-law," she said.

Howe now lives in Santa Rosa, four hours away from the Valley where she grew up, and a long way from the comfortable retirement she earned. Now, she often can't even afford to feed herself.

"I've been living from the food bank, partly from two different food banks and it's been really tough," she said.

Harrelson used her position at Soutas and Associates to recruit her elderly victims, often selling them burial insurance or other products, but just pocketing the cash. Her employer caught on and alerted investigators, and Harrelson has been in jail since May. Her attorney says she's remorseful.

"She's had a lot of time to think about it," said defense attorney Frank Gash. "She would like to ask the court to consider probation or some earlier release so she can get some sort of a job -- Starbucks or whatever -- and start making some restitution."

But Judge Penner gave Harrelson the maximum sentence, making Ila Howe's four-hour trip Wednesday all the more worthwhile.

The judge ordered Harrelson to pay about $105,000 in restitution to her victims, most of it to Ila Howe, although prosecutors say they doubt she'll ever get any money back.

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