Friendly Persuasion?

Ex-Gospel Musician Turns Out To Be Con Artist

A former professional gospel musician, Retha Sue Whitfield liked to think of herself as a deeply religious person. But Whitfield, who lived in Pensacola, Fla., a coastal town on the Florida panhandle, is no angel.

As 48 Hours Correspondent Phil Jones first reported eight years ago, Whitfield was charged in 1989 with bilking $400,000 worth of cash and property from her erstwhile friend, Dorothy Billingsley. The two had met years before, at a restaurant Billingsley ran with her late husband Rex.

When Rex died in 1985, Dorothy, who had been married to him for 43 years, was devastated. Whitfield moved in. Over the next three years, she defrauded Billingsley, while feeding her a powerful combination of drugs - tranquilizers, antidepressants and sleeping pills - that kept her in a mental fog. At Whitfield's trial, a prosecutor called it a "chemical straitjacket."

There was a range of incriminating evidence. Whitfield hid this material in a warehouse, which she rented under a false name, Ruby Jones. Witnesses testified that "Ruby Jones" was in fact Whitfield.

Whitfield had tried to isolate her from friends and family, Billingsley said. "I was told daily that I had no friends, my brother hated me, that he was going to take me away and put me in a home," Billingsley said.

In addition, Whitfield impersonated Billingsley, making large withdrawals at the bank.

Whitfield faced 133 charges in all, including fraud, forgery, theft, unlawful imprisonment and kidnapping. She was convicted of 132 - all but the kidnapping, which was difficult to prove given the circumstances.

Whitfield, who is now 67, was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Once she got to jail, the state of Florida immediately knocked 10 years off the sentence. For every month of time she serves with good behavior, 20 days of her sentence are erased. Consequently, her release date changes monthly. She is now due to be released in 22 years.

Billingsley still lives in the same house in Pensacola. Now 73, she likes to garden and play canasta with her friends. When 48 Hours recently spoke with her, she said she is doing well, and has a new dog.

Produced by David Kohn