John Byrne
John Byrne (Boulder County Sheriff's Office)

A Boulder district judge on Friday handed down a 6-year prison sentence to an estate planning attorney who pleaded guilty to bilking his 94-year-old mother-in-law -- who suffers from dementia -- out of $578,000.

The defendant, John Charles Byrne, 63, who now lives in Arizona, was appointed as trustee and fiduciary for his mother-in-law, Charlotte Irey Short, in 2005. Soon after, Byrne listed himself as a dependent of Short's, citing back problems as a health matter.

Judge Thomas Mulvahill handed down the strictest sentence possible for Byrne's felony and misdemeanor theft conviction, saying that anything less than the maximum would send the wrong message to Short, her heirs and those who serve in fiduciary roles for the elderly.

Sentences, the judge said, need to serve as a "fair warning."

"You used Ms. Short's money for your own selfish and greedy well-being," Mulvahill told the defendant. "The thing about thieves is every time they're stealing, it takes a sufficient amount of planning and cunning. In your case, you did it repeatedly."

Byrne had been married to Short's only daughter, who died at the age of 30, before he re-married. Short had a career with the University of Colorado as a choreographer and dance professor before she moved into the Frasier Meadows retirement community in 2000.

Authorities became aware of the fraud case after Frasier Meadows reported that the woman's bills were going unpaid and she owed more than $40,000.

In 2011, a law enforcement team and civil attorneys discovered that Byrne had stolen more than $578,000 from the woman. He also was living in her home rent-free.

Byrne drained Short's liquid assets to support himself and his family, spending money on trips to Mexico and hotels. He also invested heavily in "WealthMasters," a Ponzi scheme, according to court documents.

Family support

Several family members in the courtroom showed support for Byrne, lining up in the gallery to give him tearful hugs before he was taken into custody.

Byrne's family members told the judge that he was a good father and a loving, caring person.

His attorney -- Nelissa Milfield of the public defender's office -- asked the judge to sentence her client to two years in prison, considering that Byrne did not have a prior criminal history and that he wasn't profiting from the Ponzi scheme.

"He used money to start a business, and from my research it appears that this business was a pyramid scheme, in which Mr. Byrne was not a main actor," Milfield said. "He never had one single client from this wealth-building venture."

Paying it back

Mulvahill also ordered Byrne to pay restitution amounting to $912,550, though he said it's unlikely that the money will ever be fully paid back.

Byrne also will be sentenced to three years parole and five years of supervised probation. In response to the sentencing, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett said protecting vulnerable seniors is a top priority for his office, and Byrne's case illustrates why.

"No one should ever have to fear, in their twilight years, that someone they trusted would steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from them," Garnett said. "Any trusted person who would do what this defendant did would deserve a stiff prison sentence.

"The fact that Mr. Byrne is a lawyer, and an officer of the court, makes it even worse."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1327 or sniderl@dailycamera.com.