The biggest crook in one small Alabama town certainly doesn’t fit the usual profile. On Thursday, 91-year-old Mary Ella Hixon pleaded guilty to swindling over $201,000 from River Falls, Ala., population 510, where she served as mayor for three decades, the Associated Press reports.
Hixon resigned after pleading guilty to theft, according to the AP, and documents show she had paid hush money to others in the Covington County town to hide her crimes.
Hixon was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the term was changed to five years probation due to the defendant’s “advanced age,” according to the Andalusia Star-News.
The AP reports that Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell said the decades of extortion have sapped River Falls’ budget and left the city almost penniless.
“Had it not been a 91-year-old woman, I would have stood on my head to make sure she went to prison,” Merrell told the AP.
Hixon has been ordered to repay the money, and her estate will be held responsible if she dies before completing the payment.
The probe into Hixon’s behavior revealed that in the last three years she had illicitly transferred $201,610 of the town’s money to other people, but prosecutors said they suspect her crimes began long before, the AP reports.
Hixon’s downfall began with the sale of a half-acre of city property to a man named Richard Moss, who had been living with her for more than a decade. The Andalusia Star-News reported in August that town council members never voted to approve the sale, prompting an investigation into the town’s finances. Moss stepped down from his job as jail administrator in nearby Coffee County amid the scandal, according to the Andalusia Star-News. In August, the newspaper reported that just moments after Hixon won the mayoral election, authorities executed a search warrant on town hall and Hixon’s home and workplace.
On Wednesday, Hixon—one of Alabama’s longest-serving mayors—turned herself into police as part of a negotiated surrender, and was released on bond without spending the night in prison before her court session, the AP notes.
No one else has been charged in the crimes, but Hixon has agreed to testify against any accomplices, the Star-News reports.
Hixon’s attorney, Mark Christensen, told the AP that the reasons behind the mayor’s crimes are complicated and that she was “taken advantage of” by others.
According to the AP, a sworn police statement said Hixon had misappropriated city money by transferring it to herself and her relatives, Moss and his relatives, and co-workers at a development company where she also worked. The statement detailed a conversation between Hixon and a citizen with a hidden recorder during which the mayor confessed to the crimes and paid the resident $525 to help conceal her behavior. A Wednesday story from the Andalusia Star-News lists how Hixon spent some of the extorted money, including an $80,298 salary she paid to Moss for work he did not actually perform as a “nighttime policeman” in River Falls.
Merrell told the AP that several citizens eventually offered information to police about Hixon’s activities.
“They were reluctant to do so earlier for fear of being ostracized or because it was a proverbial ‘little old lady,’” Merrel said to the AP.
The Andalusia Star-News reports that Hixon primarily gave one-word answers during court proceedings, but when asked about her mental condition, she assured the judge, “I’ve got my wits about me.”