A Nevada County woman accused of identity theft, embezzlement and posing as a lawyer pled no contest to three counts of grand theft in Nevada County Superior Court Monday.
Sarah O’Neal, 48, of Colfax, practiced law without a license, operating out of law offices in downtown Nevada City and Colfax, according to Assistant District Attorney Anna Ferguson.
“It’s encouraging to see she is beginning to take responsibility,” Ferguson said. “It’s galling to me, as she claimed to be a professional in the same field.”
O’Neal was telling her clients she mislead that the case was a misunderstanding, and she simply had to pay some California Bar Association dues as late as last week, Feguson said.
Prosecutors said O’Neal was not a licensed attorney but had been working as one, handling civil, family law and real estate matters for several years in Nevada County.
Ferguson said her biggest concern for the approximately eight victims who came forward will be whether O’Neal can pay restitution.
O’Neal owes the victims willing to come forward with their complaints approximately $25,000 with some people being owed as much as $5,000, Ferguson said.
“Her lawyer claims she can pay, but obviously, she cannot get a job as a lawyer,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said more victims were defrauded by O’Neal, but some chose to remain silent, hoping the outcomes of the cases in which O’Neal was involved will not be compromised.
The investigation in Nevada County began after numerous complaints began to trickle into the DA’s office about O’Neal not finishing or following through on legal matters for which she was retained as an attorney, District Attorney Cliff Newell said at the time.
The complaints included allegedly unfinished divorces, botched real estate deals, failure to file civil suits within the statutory time and defective loan modifications.
Auburn Police also began investigating after a woman reported fraudulent accounts on her credit report that allegedly had been opened by O’Neal.
The woman reported in mid-April that she found at least 10 fraudulent accounts on her credit report, according to the Auburn Police Department. The victim said she did not know about the accounts, which were credit card accounts, and she did not authorize anyone to open the accounts.
An investigation revealed that some of the fraudulent accounts allegedly were opened by O’Neal.
Investigators from Nevada County and Auburn Police detectives served search warrants at Colfax and Sierra County sites, and O’Neal was arrested on suspicion of elder abuse in Placer County.
On July 10, the Placer County District Attorney declined to prosecute O’Neal, citing insufficient evidence.
Nevada County continued to investigate, however. DA chief investigator Randall Billingsley and investigator Jeff Burgett, with the help of the California State Bar, allegedly uncovered that O’Neal was practicing law without a license.
“This is what is great about the Internet,” Ferguson said. “If any of the victims had checked the California Bar Association’s website, they would have seen she was not registered.”
O’Neal is due in court May 28 for a restitution hearing. Sentencing is slated for June 14.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.