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Etheredge defense paints different picture

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, at 10:22 p.m.

The only question remaining about Thomas Etheredge testifying in his securities fraud trial is when the Wild West World founder will take the stand.

"When it's time," defense attorney Steve Joseph said Monday after the Sedgwick County District Court proceedings ended for the day.

Joseph began presenting the defense's case Monday with a witness lineup that included two accountants, Etheredge's former partner in an aloe vera venture in Central America and Park City Administrator Jack Whitson.

After Judge Ben Burgess overruled the state's objection, the jury saw 2005 news video clips about Etheredge from Wichita's three TV stations.

But first Joseph let the jury know in his opening statement that Etheredge would testify.

"This is one of those cases where he has to," Joseph said after the court took its evening recess.

Joseph has told the court he expected to be done with his case before the week's end.

The prosecution has tried to show that Etheredge either misrepresented facts or omitted facts about his past in order to lure investors into giving him money to fund the theme park.

In his opening statement, Joseph said that 98 percent of the state's case is tied to information from a book, "Real Men, Real Faith," and testimony from Etheredge's ex-wife Debbie Taylor.

Joseph told the jury that Etheredge's chapter in the book wasn't meant to completely detail his life and some of the information Taylor testified about from 20 years ago is "just wrong."

Margaret VanSkiver, an accountant for a Wichita firm, said she prepared an amended tax return for Thomas and Cheryl Etheredge that showed they were owed a federal refund of $226,000 for 2005.

Last week, Gary Hamilton, an accountant who did contract work for Etheredge and later served as chief financial officer for Wild West World, said the Etheredges owed $227,000 in federal taxes as of April 15, 2005. The Etheredges never paid that tax.

The difference, VanSkiver testified, is that she applied an income loss to the previous year as allowed under IRS rules. That resulted in the refund.

Also on the stand was George Dueck, who came from Belize to testify. He and Etheredge were partners in an aloe vera plantation and processing plant in Belize in 1985.

The jury was shown numerous pictures of the operation.

Taylor testified last week that the venture failed within six months. But Dueck said the company — United Farm Industries of Belize — shut down after about a year because it wasn't able to get the export end of the business going.

Etheredge had gone to Canada to explore the export market there, Dueck said, but he never returned to Belize.

Dueck said the company did sell some products, using aloe vera in two soap products. But he didn't specify how much the company made.

TV news clips of an Etheredge news conference on Sept. 8, 2005, were shown to the jury.

Etheredge held the news conference to give some information about his past. A story in The Eagle about the news conference on Sept. 9, 2005, was also presented.

The news conference was prompted by KAKE doing interviews on Sept. 7, 2005, in developing a series on Etheredge that ran over the following two days. That series gave more details than the news conference, including information about two past felony convictions.

The defense wanted the jury to see the news stories — particularly the KAKE series — to show that investors should have had reasons to ask Etheredge questions about his past before they began giving him money in 2006. The investors have testified they didn't see the stories.

Wild West World, in Park City, went bankrupt in July 2007 after being open for two months. Park City officials were eager to have the theme park in their community.

Whitson, the city administrator, testified that the $10 million in industrial bonds the city issued for the theme park came after the news broke about Etheredge in September 2005.

He said he first learned there was a concern on Sept. 8, 2005, when he received a call from an El Dorado man who claimed Etheredge had a criminal past.

"He was very upset," Whitson said.

Whitson said he told then-Mayor Dee Stuart about the call and met with Etheredge before the news conference.

To his knowledge, Whitson said, the City Council didn't discuss backing out on helping Wild West World. Whitson said the city officials thought they were too far "down the path" to change directions.

"The feeling was Thomas had done his time," Whitson said. "He had come back and shown he was a substantial member of the community. We shouldn't throw him to the wolves. We should stand behind him.

"We weren't going to let a situation in the past ruin what we could have in the future."

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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