A retired bank executive has admitted he stole more than $300,000 from a District woman's estate for his personal business investment.

Arthur Freeman, 83, of the 1300 block of Upshur Street NW, pleaded guilty last week in Superior Court to one count of felony theft in his role as personal representative for the estate of Nettie Banks. For years he had told the D.C. Superior Court's probate division and Banks's heirs that he had done nothing improper -- until prosecutors began gathering evidence against him.

Freeman could have faced up to 10 years in prison but is unlikely to spend time behind bars. Prosecutors, who noted Freeman's age and recent brain aneurysm, said they are willing to waive a prison sentence in exchange for his help in repaying Banks's heirs.

Freeman is scheduled to be sentenced July 30, but some relatives question whether they will ever recover their losses.

"He either made bad investments or has hidden it very well," said Debbie Banks Lange, Banks's granddaughter. "I was very glad that we have come to the point where he's admitted guilt, at least."

Banks, the widow of an industrious real estate investor, had amassed an estate worth $800,000 in Washington properties by the time she died in June 1997.

Freeman met Banks while he worked at Industrial Bank of Washington, and he then became executor of her will. After she died, the D.C. Superior Court appointed him personal representative for her estate.

Freeman, who has declined to comment pending sentencing, ignored most of his legal duties as caretaker of Banks's estate for six years. He failed to properly inventory and value the estate assets, file tax returns, disburse any of the gifts Banks specifically willed to loved ones or pay the bills of the estate, according to prosecutors. But the probate court of the D.C. Superior Court took little notice of his failings until Lange complained, court records show.

In July 2001, after none of the 19 heirs had received any money, Lange urged the court to remove Freeman or have him post a bond to insure the estate. Instead, Judge Jose Lopez ordered Freeman and the family to take their dispute to a court mediator.

In January 2002, after relatives warned that only $19,000 was left in Banks's accounts, Lopez removed Freeman as personal representative.

A court investigator said that he could not determine where the money had gone and that Freeman had refused to cooperate. Checking account records indicate that Freeman had written checks of $139,336 to Camsan Corp., a Jamaican development firm; $35,000 to a Maryland lawyer; and $96,000 for cash, all for unexplained reasons, in 1998 and 1999.

The investigator urged Lopez to have Freeman's work reviewed. Lopez scheduled a hearing for November 2002 to let Freeman explain.

When Freeman's explanation did not satisfy Lopez, the judge found that $557,789 in the estate was not accounted for and ordered him to repay that amount to Banks's heirs. Lopez also referred the case to federal prosecutors.

At that time, Freeman reported having cash assets of just $48.

Prosecutors later were able to document that Freeman had withdrawn more than $300,000 from the estate. Some money remains in the estate, in the form of unsold real estate.

Lange's attorney, Mike Springmann, said he had mixed feelings about the guilty plea.

"I'm pleasantly surprised that the government actually did something," he said. "The unfortunate thing is the government doesn't know where the money is, and I really wonder if Freeman is going to find the money for them. If Judge Lopez had pinned this guy to the mat a few years earlier, this wouldn't have taken so long."

Lange said she warns people to carefully monitor people who may try to influence and take advantage of their aging parents and relatives. "She had heard his good credentials," Lange said of her grandmother's belief in Freeman. "She trusted him."