La Plata lawyer William B. Ellinger never intended to take money from his clients without returning it, his attorney said last week.

He was just borrowing the funds and meant to pay them back before he got caught, the attorney said.

But dementia, coupled with Ellinger's need to pay debts, his attorney said, made him cross the line from attorney entrusted with people's money to embezzler defrocked of his right to practice law.

Last week, Ellinger was sentenced to three years in prison followed by five years of supervised release for stealing nearly $680,000, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

From March 1996 to July 2002, prosecutors say, Ellinger, 70, wrote unauthorized checks on the estate accounts of four people whose estates he represented, channeling money through his La Plata law firm, Mitchell and Ellinger, and then withdrawing the funds for personal use.

It was a secret he harbored with the hope of one day paying all the money back. Ellinger had returned about $36,000 to the accounts before the theft was discovered, said Ellinger's attorney, Kurt Wolfgang.

"He never intended to steal anything," Wolfgang said. "This was a situation where he took money that didn't belong to him, intending to return it."

Wolfgang said Ellinger found himself in a situation where "he had more bills than he could afford, and instead of closing up his business or whatever, he borrowed money from clients without telling them."

During his sentencing, Ellinger was contrite to the victims' families, Wolfgang said, telling those present at the sentencing that he was sorry for what he had done.

"I have known the Ellinger family for a long time, and it did not ever add up to me that someone of his stature . . . would do such a thing," Wolfgang said, adding that a neurologist had evaluated Ellinger and found him to be suffering from moderate dementia.

"I felt that there must be some reason why he would make such bad judgments," Wolfgang said. "The doctor verified that the first thing to go is judgment."

Prosecutors alleged that Ellinger stole the money in increments ranging from $4,000 to $94,000, arranging to have the funds deposited into his law firm's account.

To conceal the fraud, according to the U.S. attorney's office, Ellinger prepared and filed false accounting statements with the Orphans' Court of Charles County, which oversees estate matters.

Ellinger, who entered a guilty plea to two counts of mail fraud and three counts of wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on Feb. 2, often forged the signatures of relatives of the deceased people whose estates he was representing in order to steal the money, court documents show.

For example, according to the statement of facts in the plea agreement, in January 1998 Ellinger opened a bank account for the estate of Velva H. Perrygo. Perrygo's stepdaughter, Fay P. Whitmore, was the sole signatory on the account.

The next month, Ellinger forged Whitmore's signature on an estate check payable to his firm in the amount of $4,000. Over the next 13 months, Ellinger forged Whitmore's signature on three more checks totaling $22,500, which were deposited into the bank account of Ellinger's firm, according to the statement.

Prosecutors said Ellinger, disbarred last year, also defrauded the estates of Harlan McGregor, George Lindsay and Elizabeth Epp.

Wolfgang said Ellinger, who is expected to voluntarily report to the federal courthouse July 23 to begin his sentence, intends to honor U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow's order to pay $578,360 in restitution; a real estate investment may allow him to do that, Wolfgang said.

"If it comes through, it very likely will pay off the amount, but we don't know whether it's going to come through or not," Wolfgang said.

Wolfgang said Ellinger is with his family and prefers not to comment.

"It's a very tragic situation," Wolfgang said. "I think that he will make a recovery back to being a very honorable person out of this when it's over."