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Trial under way in theft from disabled man

FORT WORTH - Johnny Bryant is mentally challenged. The 58-year-old man barely reads and can't do math.

But when he was 18, prosecutors said, he found something he was good at: stocking groceries.

For the past four decades, Bryant has worked nights at area grocery stores. By the summer of 2002, prosecutors said, he had socked away $151,000 in his profit-sharing account with Winn-Dixie.

But, according to court testimony, he has nothing to show for it now.

Prosecutors contend that Cynthia Sue Hardee, 46, an Azle resident whose husband once worked with Bryant, swindled him out of his nest egg and spent it on cars, trailers, eyeglasses and even grooming for her dog.

Her attorney, Danny Burns, said that Hardee is not a thief and that she didn't buy a single item without Bryant's consent.

Hardee is on trial this week in state District Judge Mollee Westfall's court on one count of theft of property. She is accused of stealing between $20,000 and $100,000 from Bryant. She is also charged with a count of misapplication of fiduciary property, accusing her of using Bryant's money in a way that didn't benefit him.

If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

Opening statements

"Even though he can't read, he can tell this green-bean can matches that green-bean can," Harlan said. "It is a good job for him."

In 2002, Harlan said, Bryant was working at a Winn-Dixie in Azle when Brookshire's acquired it. He had to decide what do with the $151,000 in his profit-sharing account, she said.

Prosecutors say that Hardee, whose husband, Tim, was an assistant manager at the store, struck up a friendship with Bryant and persuaded him to cash out his account, which netted $111,275 after taxes and penalties.

Harlan said that Bryant and Hardee opened a joint checking account and that shortly thereafter, Hardee began writing checks.

"Every single penny is gone," Harlan said. "The bank statements were sent to her house, and she wrote every single check on the account."

During his opening statement Tuesday, Burns told the jury that Bryant, albeit slow, could understand and manage his life and finances.

He said that Bryant wanted to start a business with Hardee and that it was Bryant's idea to take out his money.

Burns said that Hardee herself has mental and physical disabilities and that the two should have never tried to become entrepreneurs together. Still, he said, it was their choice.

"It was a disaster that these two people tried to go into business together, but they had the right to do this," Burns said. "Each and every check was written after consulting with Johnny Bryant."

Burns told the jury that Hardee and Bryant are good, honest people and that it was never Hardee's intent to steal Bryant's money.

"Cynthia Hardee is not a thief," Burns said. "They had no clue what they were doing, but that doesn't make it a crime.'

The witnessesFor much of the day, Bryant's sister Jenny Bosley testified about his disability and about how she discovered he was broke. In December 2003, Bosley said, her brother ended up on her doorstep with his clothes in two trash bags.

"He had been evicted and had no other place to live," she said.

On Jan. 3, 2004, Bosley, armed with copies of checks written by Hardee, went to Hardee' home and confronted her about spending her brother's money. Jurors saw some of those checks, which were used to buy vehicles, eyeglasses and guitars and to rent a big-screen television, among other things.

Some of the money went to Sean Trotter, who testified that Hardee gave him $8,500 to buy a dump truck and $15,000 to buy a trailer. He was supposed to use the equipment to help build Hardee and Bryant's business, which he was told was going to be a resale shop.

Trotter said that time passed and Hardee never asked him to start the project but later told him that Bryant was out of money.

He testified that he didn't realize Bryant was "slow" until months later, when he spent some time with him.

"I don't believe he is on the same level as we are," Trotter said, adding that he later gave his truck and trailer to Bryant so he could recoup some of his money. "I felt like Johnny had been taken advantage of."