TIFTON - Former Tift County Tax Commissioner's office employee Mary Grace Webb pleaded guilty Monday to one count of theft by taking and was sentenced to 15 years' probation.

Under the terms of her probation, Webb must also repay $31,709 in missing monies and attorneys' and accountants' fees, pay a $2,500 fine and serve 500 hours of community service.

"Mrs. Webb made a bad mistake," attorney John S. Sims Jr. told the court before sentencing. "She has been devastated by this, and distraught for these many months."

Tax Commissioner Gene Goode testified that he learned of a problem in the office in November 2000. He said when he confronted Webb, she admitted taking money when cash payments were made to the office and helped make a list of what was missing.

Webb has already repaid about $4,000 of the money, Goode said.

About 20 of Webb's friends and relatives attended the hearing. Her uncle, pastor and a fellow church member testified to her character.

"I know Mary made a mistake, but Lord, she's paid," said her uncle, J.H. White. "She's as fine a mother as there is in this county."

Asked by Judge J. Harvey Davis why Webb had taken the money, White said she had heavy medical expenses because one of her children has special needs.

"None of it was for personal gain," he said. "It was just for her family. I'd say 90 percent of it was spent on her child."

Asked by the judge what he thought the court should do, Goode said his office had "never taken a stand on it" and asked only to be repaid.

Webb wept as she stood before the judge and could hardly speak. "I'm sorry for everything I ever did," she told Davis. "I devoted 15 years of my life to that place. I'm just sorry."

Davis first sentenced Webb to 15 years in the state penal system and then said, "I'm going to stick my neck out, and I'll probably be criticized for it, but I'm going to allow you to serve your sentence on probation.

"...You have made a terrible mistake. It hurt you, but really you have hurt your whole family with it. But it's not the end of your life, and I hope you have learned to be a better person because of it."

In other court proceedings Monday, Davis:

Denied bond for Robert Sidney Ross Jr., who is charged with theft by deception and theft by taking. Davis said he found that Ross would present a substantial risk to the community and was at risk of committing a felony.

Accepted guilty pleas from Ernest Turner, who was charged with distribution of dextropropoxyphene (Darvocet) and Jody Wesley Edge, charged with three counts of first-degree forgery and two counts of second-degree forgery. Both will serve their sentences on probation. Turner admitted in court that he gave his cousin, Renee Sizemore, five Darvocets prescribed for his wife. Sizemore was formerly employed with the Tift County Clerk of Court's office, and the charges against Turner stemmed from an investigation into Sizemore's alleged activities while she was working in the courthouse.

To contact city editor Florence Rankin, call 382-4321, ext. 209.

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