A federal judge sentenced three Mississippi real estate developers to prison yesterday for filling in wetlands and selling the property to low- and fixed-income families, marking the end of the nation's largest wetlands criminal prosecution.

Louis Guirola Jr., U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Mississippi, ordered Robert J. Lucas Jr. to spend nine years in prison followed by three years' supervised release. His daughter, Robbie Lucas, will spend 87 months in prison followed by three years' supervised release, and a third business partner, M.E. Thompson Jr., also will serve 87 months in prison. All three will have to pay $15,000 in restitution.

The defendants, along with their two corporations, Big Hill Acres Inc. and Consolidated Investments Inc., were convicted this year of filling hundreds of acres of wetlands during the development of a 2,600-acre subdivision in Vancleave, Miss. They sold hundreds of houses on the site despite warnings from health officials that they were installing septic systems in saturated soil that would contaminate the property.

"The defendants in this case defrauded their customers and destroyed wetlands that are critical to the Gulf Coast ecosystem," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This landmark criminal case sends a strong message that corporations and individuals who commit flagrant violations of our environmental laws will be prosecuted vigorously and will face the possibility of lengthy prison sentences."

-- Juliet Eilperin