It is certainly the hope of the court that when you do return to society, you will have decided to live a useful life . . . and want now part of breaking the law. -- Chicago judge, 1972

A California woman who allegedly has emerged as that state's undisputed "welfare queen" is the same woman who defrauded dozens of Chicago merchants in a major credit card swindle almost a decade ago.

Moreover, authorities in Chicago are now examining Illinois' welfare rolls to determine if she received illegal benefits by mail.

"To our knowledge, this is the largest welfare fraud case in (California) involving one person. She is very enterprising," said Lt. Ed Aleks, chief of the district attorney's welfare fraud unit in Los Angeles County.

In Chicago, police Lt. William Corbett, who investigated the same woman, said: "There wasn't a major store she hadn't been to . . . Whatever direction we turned she had a finger in something."

Both lawmen were referring to 38-year-old Dorothy Mae Palmer, also known as Dorothy Woods, now a Pasadena society matron. Since being released from an Illinois prison in 1973, she is alleged by California authorities to have bilked that state out of more than $300,000 in payments for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, medical benefits, and food stamps. a

An affidavit in the California case said positive identification of Palmer-Woods was made through comparison of fingerprints and photographs.

Investigators who uncovered the scheme, with help from an anonymous tipster, said it involved nine aliases allegedly used by Palmer to submit welfare claims in behalf of herself and 38 nonesistent children, and an assortment of wigs, disguises and phony birth certificates.

No other known "welfare queen" has done so well.

Not California's former "welfare queen," the now imprisoned Barbara Williams, who received $240,000 in aid, or Chicago's Linda Taylor, who swindled Illinois out of $150,000 in public aid payments before she was jailed in 1977 for theft and perjury.

Or did either of the latter live as well.

Just how well Palmer lived came to light last December, when 37 Los Angeles County detectives showed up at her Spanish-style mansion in Pasadena, and at six other properties, capping a seven-month investigation.

They carried search warrants seeking evidence of massive fraud, and reported confiscating or photographing numerous wigs, disguises, phony driver's licenses, blank birth and baptismal certificates, and a quantity of jewelry and several fur coats.

They also noted that ownership of six late-model, luxury automobiles was in either the names of Palmer or her husband. The cars included a Mercedes-Benz, a Lincoln Continental and a Cadillac, the license plate frame of which boasted: "My other car is a Rolls." A Rolls-Royce was parked in the mansion driveway.

A spokesman for John Van de Kamp, Los Angeles County district attorney, said a criminal complaint is being prepared, and that Van de Kamp, a neighbor of Palmer's, is personally reviewing the investigation.

Meanwhile, Palmer has been accused in a county civil lawsuit of fraudulently collecting $370,000 in AFDC and other benefits.

Van de Kamp's office has alleged that late last year, at the height of the scheme, Palmer was receiving $5,252 monthly in AFDC payments alone. The checks were being sent to half a dozen "mail drop" county locations, Van de Kamp's office charged.

Palmer has not commented publicly on the case. Palmer was described as "noncommittal" at the time of the search of the mansion. The search team included L.A. County Detective Gary Booker, who, along with his partner, Henry Grayson, began the Palmer investigation after an anonymous tipster called a welfare-fraud hotline.

Booker said the two-story, 18-room stucco mansion is valued at more than $250,000.

County records indicate the mansion was purchased by Palmer shortly before she was arrested in California in 1971 on a Cook County Ill., grand jury indictment, which accused her of theft in connection with an estimated $250,000 credit card swindle in Chicago.

The arresting officer in the Cook County case was Corbett.

"There wasn't a major store she hadn't been to seeking merchandise on credit with false information," Corbett recalled. "She often used the name of someone she knew, and who had good credit references.

"Whatever direction we turned, she had a finger in something. It kept mushrooming. Finally, in an effort to start prosecution, we shut off investigating 'new accounts' and just plugged away at the case we already knew of."

Corbett said authorities learned of Palmer's move from Chicago's South Side to Pasadena through a credit card phone call placed to a California warehouse where she had temporarily stored furniture.

Once inside the mansion in 1971, he recalled, he spotted some unpaid-for furniture she had obtained in Chicago, including a $1,900 "living wall" with stereo cabinets, bookshelves and an electric fireplace.

Palmer refused to waive extradition then, but eventually was returned to Llinois on a warrant signed by then California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

In late 1972, after months of trail delays, court records show that Palmer pleaded guilty to five charges of grand theft and was sentenced to the women's prison at Dwight, for a term of one to four years.

It was at that time that the judge, Kenneth Wilson, told her: "It is certainly the hope of the court that when you do return to society, you will have decided to live a useful life and . . . want no part of breaking the law. It would be my hope you would devote yourself to a constructive life rather than bilking merchants."

Palmer was paroled in June 1973, after serving six months, and promptly returned to Pasadena. California records show she filed for her first allegedly false welfare claim in December, six months later.

James Piper, an assistant Cook County state's attorney who prosecuted her in the credit card scheme, said Palmer's work as a real estate broker enabled her to delve into otherwise confidential credit information of persons with good credit ratings. Some of their names later popped up on false credit card applications she submitted.

Corbett related how police traced several overdue acounts linked to Palmer to an empty apartment in Chicago's Millgate neighborhood, where he said thousands of dollars in merchandise was delivered, then spirited down the block to the home of Palmer's mother. A search of the home, Corbett said, turned up furniture, paneling, and "even a proverbial kitchen sink" -- all obtained through fraud.