How NOT to expedite probate in Florida.

In Probate Nightmare Stories by Long

DADE CITY — Sheila Morgan led a hard, but straight, life before she landed in jail in March. That’s when authorities say she stole a court seal and forged a judge’s signature to speed up the paperwork on a $15,000 inheritance. She had never been arrested in Florida before.

Details of her curious crime came to light today in court, when Morgan, 48, pleaded guilty to several charges and was sentenced to four years’ probation.

Her apparent motive: drugs.

Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa approved the probation sentence Morgan’s public defender had worked out with prosecutors. But he urged her to add drug treatment to her punishment.

“I want to make sure that you’re addressing what brought you here in the first place,” Siracusa told her. He read a letter from Morgan’s daughter describing Morgan’s childhood of sexual abuse followed by a lifelong drug addiction.

“All my life I can’t think of a time that she has been completely clean,” wrote Lisa Adams, who lives in Louisiana.

Morgan, who sat hunched over in court and cried at times, agreed to the treatment. Dade City police said Morgan was the sole beneficiary when her mother died in February. She stood to inherit $15,159 and a house.

To expedite the probate process, authorities say, on March 7 she photocopied the signature of Pasco County Judge William Sestak onto a document releasing the funds and stole a court clerk seal to make it look more official. Then she tried to pass the document as real at a local bank.

Sestak, who doesn’t routinely sign probate documents, said he’s never had anyone try anything like this. “It looked good,” he said of the signature. “It looked like it fit right there.”

A restitution hearing will be scheduled if the two sides can’t agree on an amount Morgan must pay back. Jason Bavol, her public defender, said it’s a moot point because the money Morgan stole belonged to her.

“In a sense, she took money from herself,” he said. Siracusa left open the possibility of reducing her sentence to two years’ probation if she can pay the restitution off quickly. He left her with one final warning: “You can’t do anything like that ever again, okay?”

— Molly Moorhead, Times staff writer