SOMERSET -- A Southern Kentucky woman who scammed an older couple out of more than $400,000 has been sentenced to two years and nine months in federal prison.

The sentence also makes Mitzi Shawn Sears responsible for paying $502,780 in restitution, counting a loan the victims took out and interest.

Sears, a Pulaski County resident who has worked as a teacher and in real estate, admitted that she used a phony property transaction to con the couple into giving her money. The victims were not identified by name in court records.

Sears convinced the couple to buy a piece of property with her as an investment, then told them the land was tied up in a lawsuit and they needed to provide money for lawyers and other costs, according to a court record.

There was no property or a lawsuit, but Sears kept bilking the man for years, posing as other people in telephone calls to keep the scam going and drafting fake emails to send to him.

The couple wrote checks to Sears, and she also forged checks on their account.

The man even took out a $40,000 loan and gave the money to Sears, according to a court document.

"Working with our law enforcement partners, we are committed to holding accountable those who of engage in financial exploitation of elderly victims," said U.S. Attorney Robert M. Duncan Jr. "The defendant's fraud scheme deprived the victims' of a substantial amount of money."

A Lexington attorney representing Sears, R. Burl McCoy, said in a sentencing memorandum that her criminal conduct happened during a time she was in a "toxic, unhealthy" relationship with a man who was controlling, manipulative and a drug abuser.

"Attempting to cope with this situation caused Mitzi significant mental and emotional trauma, from which she still suffers," McCoy said in seeking a sentence for her at the low end of advisory guidelines.

Sears has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and at one time "self-medicated" with alcohol, McCoy said.

District Judge Robert E. Wier sentenced Sears Monday.

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