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Abingdon man admits to stealing from family trust

An Abingdon man accused of stealing nearly $400,000 meant for his late grandmother's trust fund recently pleaded guilty to theft and was ordered to make monthly restitution payments starting Sept. 1.

Jason Edward Fruhling, 43, pleaded guilty on one count of theft-$100,000 plus, entered July 25 in Harford County Circuit Court, bringing to a surprise end a case that has been in the courts for nearly three years, Assistant Harford County State's Attorney Salvatore Fili said.

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"I was not expecting this plea," Fili, who prosecuted the case, said Monday. "We were all geared up and ready for trial."

Fruhling who according to court records lived in the 3300 block of Trellis Lane, can avoid prison time as long as he makes monthly payments of $2,000 in restitution to Sharon Demarest, the niece of his grandmother and his aunt, for the next five years, according to Fili.

His grandmother, Dorothy Pawling, died as the case remained in the courts, Fili said. According to the Harford County Register of Wills office, Mrs. Pawling died Nov. 12, 2016. The case was postponed repeatedly as Fruhling either sought more time to get an attorney, neither a judge nor a jury were available on the scheduled court date, or a defense attorney or state witness had a personal crisis, he said.

Thomas Ashwell, an assistant public defender who represented Fruhling, said the guilty plea was the best choice for his client.

"It was a difficult case from a trial perspective because the evidence is very heavily in favor of the state," Ashwell said Tuesday.

He said his client "thought it best to ultimately avoid running the risk of jail time after a trial," and went ahead with the guilty plea.

"Mr. Fruhling certainly seemed to be happy with the arrangement after we worked it out," Ashwell said.

Fruhling, if he keeps up with the monthly payments, will have paid back $120,000 out of $167,000 he owes in restitution for Demarest's half of the trust by the end of those five years, Fili said. He then has another five-year period of probation, with a suspended prison sentence, to pay back the remaining $47,000.

The defendant faces up to 25 years in prison if he fails to make a payment, Fili noted.

"Resolution by plea is always in the interest of the taxpayers," Fili said.

Fruhling was indicted Sept. 30, 2014, according to online court records; the thefts happened in 2013. Court records also show an address for Fruhling in Wallingford, Pa.

He faced a trial by jury on 10 criminal charges, including four counts of theft, four counts of theft-scheme and two counts of obtaining the property of a vulnerable adult, according to court records.

Fili had gathered a number of witnesses, including people from out of state, to testify, he said, and he had to juggle their schedules around the multiple court dates.

"Everybody was nice because everybody, of course, was appalled at what happened and wanted to help out," Fili said of his witnesses.

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Fruhling was the trustee, and Demarest was the supervisor of a trust set up to help his grandmother cover the expenses of her assisted living facility in Harford County.

Fruhling was also designated as his grandmother's power-of-attorney, and he could write checks from her bank account to pay her bills, Fili said.

Fruhling and Demarest worked with attorneys to set up the trust through a federal program available for veterans and their spouses — Mrs. Pawling's late husband had served in the military, according to Fili.

The beneficiary, which was Mrs. Pawling, can give their assets to a third party as a gift, which that person then places in the trust, and the funds are used to pay assisted living expenses, the prosecutor explained.

The beneficiary then meets the low-income threshold for the federal program and has avoided paying federal taxes, he said.

"Uncle Sam allows you to impoverish yourself by giving your stuff away," Fili said.

Demarest was dealing with a personal crisis when the time came for Mrs. Pawling to gift the portion of her assets to Demarest and Fruhling, so the parties agreed that Fruhling could write himself a check for the full amount, $390,000, and put it in the trust.

That money did not go into the trust, however; Fruhling allegedly spent it on gifts such as two watches worth $35,000 each, sank $50,000 into a Towson restaurant investment that he walked away from about a month before the establishment opened, a motorcycle, SUVs and luxury cars, Fili said.

Demarest learned that the money had been stolen and she contacted the Harford County Sheriff's Office and even tried to recover the money by suing Fruhling.

Fruhling "completely ignored the lawsuit," though, and the money was not recovered through the civil process, Fili said.

The state and defense agreed, through the criminal process, that Fruhling would pay back $200,000 — Demarest's half of the trust — minus $33,000 worth of equity that remained from the sale of Mrs. Pawling's family home in Salisbury, he said.

The prosecutor said it was a challenge of bringing the case before members of a jury who had to learn the complexities of the trust process, plus the victim of the thefts had died, so Mrs. Pawling could not counter if Fruhling's defense argued that she had given him the money to spend as he wished.

"This is a complicated confidence swindle," Fili said.

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