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Etheredge trial turns combative on last day

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, at 10:22 p.m.

On a day that included a mix of combative exchanges between Thomas Etheredge and the prosecutor, and rousing patriotic and cowboy music, testimony in Etheredge's securities fraud trial came to an end Friday.

Before the state and defense rested their cases, Etheredge testified, "I don't know how one could be more forthright than I have."

Sedgwick County District Judge Ben Burgess will meet with attorneys from both sides Monday morning in his chambers to discuss his final instructions to the jury. The jury is scheduled to return at 1 p.m. Monday to hear closing arguments before beginning deliberations.

A key part of the judge's instructions will be what legal responsibility, if any, a potential investor has to learn about an investment.

The final day of 10 1/2 days of testimony featured sparring between Kansas Securities Exchange Commissioner Chris Biggs, who is one of the prosecutors, and Etheredge, the founder of the failed Wild West World.

Following one exchange, Biggs asked Etheredge, "What does the word 'braggadocious' mean to you?"

"If I could speak frankly, I think I'm looking at it," Etheredge said as he stared at Biggs.

Testifying earlier in the jury trial, David Brown — who loaned $75,000 to Etheredge for the park — described Etheredge as "braggadocious."

Burgess reminded Etheredge three times to just answer the questions.

Much of Biggs' questioning focused on what information Etheredge made available to investors, banks and the Small Business Administration regarding his past criminal convictions.

He was convicted of securities fraud in Kansas in 1987 and served prison time for a bad check conviction.

Biggs asked Etheredge why he didn't use the word "fraud" when telling people about his 1987 conviction. Etheredge has said that the word "fraud" doesn't exist in the plea agreement he reached when he pleaded no contest to nine counts in Wyandotte County.

Biggs showed Etheredge the criminal complaint in the case and a part that read "to defraud."

"Would you agree with me that 'defraud' is there?" Biggs asked.

"What I would agree to is I pled innocent," Etheredge said.

"Then that's your version of the events," Biggs shot back as he turned to walk away from the witness stand.

"Not my version, the version of the state of Kansas," Etheredge said.

The final piece of evidence was a 95-minute videotape of a talk Etheredge gave July 4, 2004, at Wichita's Central Christian Church in connection with a concert that included Etheredge's Prairie Rose Wranglers.

When the "Star-Spangled Banner" played and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited during the tape, Etheredge stood up.

His head occasionally bobbed as he kept time with the music.

Etheredge's talk came toward the end of the tape. He told the audience about his past, although the facts didn't always line up with testimony in the trial.

One of the most glaring contradictions was what he told the audience about a conversation he had with former Kansas Attorney General Bob Stephan. He said Stephan met him at the Kansas City airport in the middle of the night after Etheredge was extradited from Texas to face the securities fraud charges in Wyandotte County.

Etheredge said Stephan told him, "Thomas, I'm not your enemy. You've shown your innocence. Thomas, I want you to know, it's an election year, and we intend to win this case one way or another.

"You can fight it, or you can plead no contest and we'll work out something... on a plea bargain."

On Jan. 27, Stephan testified that he didn't know Etheredge and had never met him. He also said his office was never involved with that securities fraud case.

Friday started with a combative tone when Etheredge asked the morning's first question from the witness stand.

Just as Biggs was ready to begin his questioning, Etheredge said, "Mr. Biggs, may I interrupt and shed some light on some things? I was thinking about some of these things last night."

Biggs told Etheredge he would have a chance to explain those things later when his attorney asked questions.

But Etheredge continued, explaining that because of the medications he took for his Parkinson's disease and heart condition he grew tired by the afternoon.

Biggs replied, "You'll get that chance."

"OK, I just wanted to offer that help to you," Etheredge said.

Later, Biggs asked Etheredge about a letter with attached documents that Etheredge sent Sept. 8, 2005, to Greg Berry, who at the time was the executive vice president of the First National Bank of Southern Kansas.

"Is that your handwriting on the Post-it note?" Biggs asked.

"Yes," Etheredge said. "I'd like to explain fully."

"Sir, you'll have your opportunity," Biggs said.

Soon after, Etheredge tried to ask another question.

"Sir, will you let me ask the questions?" Biggs asked.

A little later, Etheredge tried to interrupt again. This time the judge spoke up.

"Conversations in a courtroom are not like normal conversations," Burgess said. "It's not necessary for you to offer to give information. You simply answer the question asked."

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