A Bismarck woman who used fraudulent letters to swindle people out of more than $750,000 told a judge that the money is gone, spent mostly on an opioid habit that has plagued her for 17 years.
Autumn Morrell, 32, was charged in October with three counts of theft and three counts of forgery, all Class A felonies. She pleaded guilty to all the charges, and South Central District Judge Pamela Nesvig sentenced her Thursday to five years in prison.
Morrell was accused of using fake letters from law firms and government entities -- some containing a forged signature of South Central District Judge Cynthia Feland -- signing a $400,000 promissory note to one victim and using other fake documents to swindle victims out of more than $757,700.
Morrell told Nesvig that she tried to get medical help for an oxycodone habit but the efforts failed and she relapsed, at times taking 40 oxycodone pills a day. She used some of the money gained in her letter scheme to pay bills and buy things for her sons, she said, but the money has been spent. Her alleged victims were acquaintances and family friends, she said.
Morrell is a "con artist and manipulator," said Assistant Burleigh County State's Attorney Scott Miller in arguing for a sentence he said should punish her and deter others from similar tactics. Her substance abuse may have played a part in the letter scheme, but "the main objective is greed," he said. Her actions destroyed many lives, and the use of phony letters from judicial officers "puts a cloud over the court system," Miller said. He asked Nesvig for concurrent 15-year year sentences on each of the six counts.
Defense attorney Steve Balaban asked Nesvig to sentence his client to time served -- 134 days -- and place her on probation so she could start working and making restitution.
"It works better for the victims if she's out," Balaban said.
Nesvig called Morrell's actions "deplorable," adding that no one should be tricked or fooled out of the money they planned to use for retirement.
"Addiction fuels a lot of bad behavior, but this is more than that," Nesvig said. "This is a big deal."
Nesvig sentenced Morrell to concurrent 20-year sentences with 15 years suspended. She also ordered her to spend three years on probation after she is released, and told her she should plan to work multiple jobs when she's out of prison.
"You need to pay these people back," the judge said.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com
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