BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- 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.'"