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Friday, July 25, 2014

Thomas Etheredge guilty on 7 of 9 counts

BY RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

The complex and lengthy securities fraud trial of Thomas Etheredge ended Wednesday with a jury finding the founder of the failed Wild West World theme park guilty on seven of nine counts.

"It was a very complicated case," said Kansas Securities Commissioner Chris Biggs, who helped prosecute the case. "There was a lot of paper, a lot of detail.

"We knew in this case, the jury was going to have to take some time."

Sentencing is set for March 12 in Sedgwick County District Court. Etheredge, 55, faces a maximum of 14 years in prison, according to Steve Joseph, his defense attorney.

Joseph said that he will ask Judge Ben Burgess to take Etheredge's health into account in handing down a sentence. Etheredge, who has been in jail since his arrest May 1, has Parkinson's disease and had a stroke a few months ago, Joseph said.

Joseph also said there would be an appeal.

"There are a number of really, really hotly contested issues of law in this case," Joseph said. "I think we have a very strong grounds on appeal."

He said he would file the appeal notice on the sentencing date but that a public defender would represent Etheredge from there.

For now, the latest chapter for Etheredge and the theme park is over.

The state had charged Etheredge with convincing investors to give him money for the park — nearly $750,000 — by either providing false or incomplete information about his past.

After hearing testimony from nearly 40 witnesses — including one accountant twice — seeing stacks of evidence over the last three weeks, the jury of six men and six women went into its second day of deliberations Wednesday before reaching its verdicts.

"We're not in a position of collecting scalps," Biggs said. "We want to see that justice is done. And obviously we wouldn't have brought the case if we didn't think it was something the evidence supported."

Etheredge, who served three years in prison for another securities fraud conviction in Kansas in 1987, smiled slightly and winked at his wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Emily, as he came into the courtroom about 2:15 p.m. to hear the verdicts.

As the bailiff read the decisions, Etheredge sat at the defense table and looked occasionally at the jurors. He showed no emotion.

The man who founded Wild West World in May 2007, then saw it close and go bankrupt two months later, was quiet.

Just before Etheredge was taken back to jail, he smiled thinly as he looked at his wife and daughter.

Etheredge was found not guilty on two counts. The counts involved $150,000 he received from Marvin Whitson, his wife's uncle, and $10,000 from Patrick Bullock, an associate pastor at Summit Church.

Because Whitson was a family member and Bullock went to Etheredge about investing, Biggs said, "That may have made a difference."

Joseph said the defense was hurt by the judge allowing the prosecution to close its case last Friday by showing a videotape of Etheredge speaking to an audience at Wichita's Central Christian Church on July 4, 2004, in connection with a concert.

Etheredge's talk contradicted his testimony at the trial on several points.

" (Playing the tape) right at the end of the case was a very poor way for the case to end as far as the defense was concerned," Joseph said. "The judge refused to admit that (video) three times, and the fourth time he finally relented and put it into evidence."

Religion was a constant theme throughout the trial. Etheredge and all but two of the investors listed on the criminal complaint, including two pastors, attended Summit Church.

The defense maintained Etheredge provided enough information about his criminal past — largely through the book "Real Men, Real Faith" — that investors should have been prompted to dig deeper if they really wanted to know more.

The prosecution claimed that same book led investors into a false sense of trust in Etheredge because he claimed to have had a religious conversion during his prison stint for the previous securities fraud conviction.

Etheredge also professed his innocence in the Bethany Trust case, which resulted in his securities fraud conviction in 1987. He did so in the book and continued to do so at the trial as information about that case was repeatedly brought up by the prosecution.

"The Bethany Trust case was tried all over again," Joseph said. "The object of the prosecution was... to make Mr. Etheredge look bad for something he did 25 years ago.

"We fought hard to keep as much of that out as we could."

While the prosecution closed with the videotape, the defense's last attempt to influence the jury was to put Etheredge on the stand for 2 1/2 days last week.

He started slowly, then warmed up, sparring frequently with Biggs during cross-examination.

"I've never seen another witness dominate an attorney in the courtroom like he did," Joseph said. "It was an amazing performance."

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

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