Margaret and William Dean love the Minnesota Vikings. In recent years, they bought season tickets to the NFL team's games, even though they lived in Northern Virginia, and flew to Minneapolis on weekends for games and shopping.

The couple also bought a $725,000 house and horse farm in Fairfax Station and a $310,000 house in the Mount Vernon area, along with a collection of purebred horses and sports cars. The couple didn't hide the fact they were living the high life.

But Margaret Dean, 35, was paid $67,000 working at a title company in Fairfax City, and William Dean, 34, was unemployed. The couple recently admitted that they embezzled $1.4 million from the title company between 1999 and last year.

Yesterday, both Deans were sentenced to three years in prison.

Four of the six people who worked at Merit Title Co. lost their jobs because of the huge theft, the company's owner said, and the company still owes its creditors more than $1 million because its insurance policies did not cover employee theft. A Fairfax County judge yesterday ordered the Deans to pay $1.2 million in restitution to the company.

"The Deans's extreme self-indulgence and greed," Merit Title owner Daniel H. Shaner wrote to the judge, "is not only exposed by the dollar amount of the theft but also by the type, number and frequency of their purchases." The theft grew worse in 2002, when Shaner's wife, who was also Merit's office manager, was dying of cancer.

In addition to the two houses and their pro football season tickets, the couple bought at least 10 1968 Mercury Cougars, three large pickup trucks and a convertible sports car, four purebred Friesian horses, and a vast array of Minnesota Vikings paraphernalia from eBay and elsewhere. The sale of the property has recovered about $350,000 for Shaner, court records show.

"I don't think I've ever seen an embezzlement case involving this much money or occurring this often over this period of time," Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Robert W. Wooldridge said yesterday. He said most embezzlements are done to pay for a sick child or a college education.

"That doesn't justify it," the judge added, "but at least it stands for more than stealing for the purpose of buying season tickets to the Minnesota Vikings and flying up there on weekends, and buying things on eBay and buying Mercury Cougars."

The Deans faced a maximum of 20 years in prison on the embezzlement charge, to which they pleaded guilty in July. State sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders recommended probation. Wooldridge imposed the maximum on both defendants, then suspended all but 31/2 years for Margaret Dean and three years for William Dean.

Shaner said after the sentencing that he had hoped the couple would get five years in prison. He said Merit Title was forced to merge with another company as a result of the theft, in addition to laying off most of its employees.

In addition, William Dean is facing five felony counts in Fairfax juvenile court of having carnal knowledge of a juvenile. His attorney, Edward J. Nuttall, said Dean would fight those charges.

Nuttall said the embezzlement arose from his client's chronic depression and inability to be the breadwinner in his family, which included a young son and a stepdaughter. So, he said, Margaret Dean began writing checks from Merit to her husband -- dozens of them from 1999 to 2003, two to five times a month, for thousands of dollars each time.

Nuttall said the Deans planned to repay Shaner and Merit by investing their stolen proceeds. But Margaret Dean "found it to be easy" to keep stealing, her lawyer David W. Deane said, "and it sort of snowballed."

Shaner told the judge that he had placed Margaret Dean in a position of trust so she could learn the real estate business, and that his company had paid additional expenses for health insurance for her "stay-at-home" husband and children.

During the 12 months between his wife's cancer diagnosis and her death, Shaner wrote, Margaret Dean stole more than $545,000. On the day of Carletta Shaner's death, Shaner noted, Dean embezzled $9,900. After her death, Ruoff said, Margaret Dean forged Carletta Shaner's signature on a document enabling her to purchase the $725,000, 8.8-acre property in Fairfax Station.

Confronted with their crimes in July of last year, the Deans briefly disappeared. In August, they returned, surrendered and posted bonds. In November they vanished again, before their preliminary hearing. Their lawyers said the couple fled to West Virginia and attempted to commit suicide but reconsidered at the last moment. They returned to Fairfax in March and have been in jail since.

"I am deeply ashamed and totally regret what I have done," Margaret Dean told the judge, with a packed courtroom of relatives and victims sitting behind her. "I offer no excuses because there is no excuse." Her lawyer said she would "have to work the rest of her life to make restitution."

William Dean said he apologized "to everyone at Merit Title, especially Dan Shaner. What I did was horrible. I hope I get not only the chance to make restitution but to pay him on a personal level. And ask for his forgiveness, even though I don't deserve it."

Margaret Dean said she was "ashamed."William Dean said his actions were "horrible."