BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A 91-year-old woman who pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing $201,000 from the south Alabama town where she was mayor for three decades paid hush money in a bid to keep her crimes secret, documents showed.
Prosecutors said River Falls Mayor Mary Ella Hixon pleaded guilty to theft and resigned. In exchange, authorities dropped another felony ethics charge.
Circuit Judge Ashley McKathan sentenced Hixon to 10 years in prison but suspended the term because of Hixon's advanced age. She must spend five years on probation.
Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell said years of thefts left the city all but broke.
"Had it not been a 91-year-old woman, I would have stood on my head to make sure she went to prison," said Merrell.
McKathan ordered Hixon to repay the money, with her estate being held responsible if she dies before all the money is refunded.
The probe revealed Hixon had illegally transferred $201,610 in city money to others in the last three years, but the prosecutor said the thefts likely started long before.
An attorney representing Hixon, Mark Christensen, said "a lot of factors" led to Hixon's actions.
"I think at least partially she was being taken advantage of some others she trusted and probably shouldn't have," he said.
Hixon, one of Alabama's longest-serving mayors, was re-elected in August, Christensen said.
Located near the Florida line, River Falls has about 510 residents. It's little more than a wide spot in the road for people driving to Panhandle beaches.
"To a casual passerby, it would be two gas stations and a bridge," Merrell said.
Authorities said police in nearby Opp began investigating after The Andalusia Star-News reported in August about the city selling property to a middle-aged man who was living with Hixon. Merrell said Hixon acted like a grandmother to the man's four children, the youngest of whom just entered college.
A sworn police statement said city money went to Hixon and her relatives; the man she lived with and his relatives; and co-workers at a development company where the mayor also worked.
The police statement showed the investigation grew to include a "concerned citizen" wearing a hidden recorder during a conversation in which Hixon admitted to illegal conduct, told the person what to say to police, and paid the man $525 to "keep him quiet."
Hixon turned herself in to authorities Wednesday in a negotiated surrender and was released on bond without having to spend the night in jail before her court appearance.
No one else has been charged, authorities said, but an investigation continues and Hixon agreed to cooperate. Christensen said she testified to a grand jury after pleading guilty.
Residents who long suspected wrongdoing in the town began talking to police after word of the investigation leaked earlier this year, said the district attorney. While Hixon was old, he said, she also was powerful.
"We had quite a few citizens come forward with information they had held on to for years," Merrell said. "They were reluctant to do so earlier for fear of being ostracized or because it was a proverbial 'little old lady.'"
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This Week’s Celebrity Instagrams (6/18-6/24)
25 photos Launch gallery
1. Me & the homie @jaleelwhite #RujohnFoundation Happy to be in Jamaica! Good times
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5. Good Morning. Early day in Detroit! Making press rounds for @thebossnetwork's Ladies That Lead Tour. Thank you @traycemadre and @colourbynumbr for my glam.
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6. POWER the best show on TV @djenvy, Queens we so big out here. #EFFENVODKA #FRIGO
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7. They said u lost a step, wasn't explosive as once was, the best days was in the real view, questioned your drive, your leadership, your commitment, you don't have killer instinct, going back home is the worst mistake in your career, he got the coach fired, players traded, won't work between him and Kyrie, Him and Kev won't work, love your teammates to much, there's no way he can deliver a championship in his hometown, etc etc etc.... But guess what THATS NONE OF MY BUSINESS #StriveForGreatness #ThisOneIsForTheLand #PutSomeRespeckOnMyName Hahahaha!!! Yes sir
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8. Oooooh weeee this man right here is responsible for at least three of our four babies!! #JOE ❤❤❤🎤 #rnb #king #voicelikebutter #ForPeetesSake
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9. Hanging with my @abcnetwork family! @abcunclebuck tonite y'all check us out ! @anthonyanderson @traceeellisross
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10. My broski ( @sayeedshahidi ) and I are on Top 5 Live on @go90 at 5 (which is super duper close)! Make sure to tune in :) #UncleBuck #Blackish
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11. Lights out💤 #GoodNight
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12. Late nights mornings
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13. Ran into the lovely talented @siedahgarrett on this brutiful favvuz deh!
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14. #halal #love #thedargans #kattwilliamsSHOW #mashallah when that Jennah piece HIT!! @sweetjennahcollection glasses by @baddieglamaccessories LIZ 😍 @dynamiteko top @dazzledmv and jeans @thevision414 and shoes: @louboutinworld
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15. Big Hair and Optical Illusions #OceanDrive #MiamiLiving #coverparty
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16. MAMA and THE SAVAGES ... ⚓️ #supportyourlocalgirlgang
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17. From the bottom of my ❤️, thank you new followers & old! & hello fellow night owls! #grateful #racheltrue #naturalhair #curlyhair #curlygirl #healthyhair
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18. I feel so grateful because I met these amazing young minds, visiting from Houston TX, during their college tour stop today at #usc.These students are ALL extraordinary and embody academic excellence so I'm humbled to have shared a few moments with them to applaud and celebrate their bright futures ahead! Thank you @EmergeFellows for inviting me to speak and blessing me with your love and attention this afternoon!
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19. Happy Fathers Day Pops. U taught me how to be a man. Lessons of love, hard work & gratefulness. Sorry the fishing didn't stick. LOL. I Love U!
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20. Sky Zone and Ice Cream! Best Fathers Day Ever!! Photo credit @mariahcarey
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21. Look what finally came in the mail 😎 #mtvmovieawards2016 💥+🌽! #straightouttacompton
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22. Claudia Jordan: ....
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23. 'Member that time I almost knocked a bajillion dollar camera off the car? Really? Yeah, me neither! #Greenleaf Episode 2 comin atcha!
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24. Full of love. #birthday #Cabo
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25. Oh hey! Look who just joined Snapchat
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