JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A Jacksonville attorney was arrested Friday on charges of grand theft and exploiting her elderly clients out of $100,000.
Cynthia Nichols has been practicing law in Florida since 1981, focusing mainly on elderly estate management.
The charges came after the family of one of three victims filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Children and Families in November 2012.
"That is the highest amount that we've seen in an exploitation case in Jacksonville in several years," says DCF spokesman John Harrell.
Harrell calls the case disturbing and alarming. As an attorney, Nichols had access to all of her clients' money and served as guardian over their financial accounts.
Further investigation by the State Attorney's office reveals Nichols used her clients accounts to fund a lavish lifestyle for her and a friend, Gina Bateh, who is a five-time convicted felon.
Action News is told Nichols used money from one client's account to buy two vehicles that were used by Bateh and her daughter. Nichols also bought a Southside home that she allowed Bateh to live in. Bateh was paid a weekly salary to care for a second victim who only lived in the home for a short time.
In addition, a police report reveals Nichols withdrew money from a third client's account using his ATM card. The family says their loved one is unable to use a card and did not make the withdraws.
"You have someone who's buying a house or a rental property for somebody who's living in a facility? That's a red flag," says Harrell. "Then they buy a car for someone who can't drive. That's another big red flag. That's why we called the State Attorney to investigate.
Richard Mantei, assistant state attorney, says the evidence is clear.
"The bank records sort of speak for themselves."
As a guardian, Mantei says Nichols could likely have acted without her clients knowing.
"The banks don't even typically issue ATM cards to anyone other than the guardian, even to the ward themselves, because they're declared by the court not to be able to look after themselves."
Because her clients were unaware, Mantei says Nichols may have even more victims and additional charges may be filed.
"We never stop investigating, period."
Cynthia Nichols' arraignment is scheduled for May 9. If convicted on the current second and third-degree felony counts she could face up to five and 15 years, respectively.
The Florida Bar says it is also investigating.
If you think you or a loved one may be a victim of exploitation, you can contact the DCF abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873.