WICHITA — After 10 1/2 hours of testimony over two days, the defense concluded its direct questioning this afternoon of Wild West World founder Thomas Etheredge.
The final two questions from defense attorney Steve Joseph went to the heart of the matter in Etheredge's securities fraud trial:
"Did you intentionally lie to any of the investors so they would give you money for Wild West World?" Joseph asked.
"Absolutely not," Etheredge said.
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"Did you ever intentionally conceal any fact in order to get investors to give you money for Wild West World?" Joseph asked.
"Absolutely not," Etheredge said.
The prosecution will now begin its cross-examination.
During earlier testimony today, Etheredge said that it was never his plan to take on private investors in his failed Wild West World theme park.
He said he and his wife, Cheryl, had determined "not to go with private investors because of this SEC issue. We had our bank financing in place."
Seven investors are listed on the nine counts of charges against Etheredge, whose theme park in Park City remained open for only two months before closing and going bankrupt in July 2007. Those seven investors combined to give Etheredge $735,000 for Wild West World.
Rob and Angel Dillard gave Etheredge $300,000. They gave him a check for $200,000 in July 2006 and another $100,000 the next month. Like most of the investors, the Dillards attended church with Etheredge.
Etheredge, under questioning from Joseph, testified that he had lunch one day with Rob Dillard — someone Etheredge described as his "pray partner" — and was only sharing in general the building needs of the theme park and that some bills were coming due. A few days later, the Dillards delivered a check to him for $200,000.
"I said, 'You're kidding?' " Etheredge testified. "We had financed (the theme park) all ourselves. We never intended to get money from others. It took me aback.''
Etheredge said Rob Dillard told him that God had directed him to give the money for Wild West World.
As for the Dillards' check for $100,000, Etheredge testified that he had an agreement with the Dillards that if he had further needs for the park he'd let them know. That need arose, and he let them know.
"I had given my word to Rob and Angel that I'd give them the first opportunity," Etheredge said. "I told them this is the need, you don't have to tell me now, pray about it and get back with me."
Etheredge said he had about $8 million in loans from a consortium of banks, led by the First National Bank of Southern Kansas in Mount Hope. But he said he had "millions of dollars" in loans from banks in Europe to help finance rides at the park.
"Banks in the United States don't usually fund theme park rides because of liabilities," Etheredge testified. "Banks in Europe do."
Joseph also questioned Etheredge about his no-contest plea in his securities fraud conviction in Kansas in 1987 and the jobs he held after being released from prison in 1989.
The securities fraud conviction was the result of the Bethany Trust, the banking operation that Etheredge started in 1984. Charges included nine in Kansas and six in Missouri.
As part of a plea agreement between the Wyandotte County District Attorney's Office and the Missouri assistant attorney general, Etheredge entered an Alford plea to two of the six Missouri charges.
"What is an Alford plea?" Joseph asked.
"Basically that meant that position of believing I was not guilty was being entered," Etheredge said. "But nonetheless, the court was sentencing me."
"So you pled guilty in Missouri?" Joseph asked.
"Yes," Etheredge said.
"But you claim you weren't guilty?" Joseph asked.
"Absolutely," Etheredge said.
Later, Etheredge discussed how he and Cheryl established the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper in 1999. He said they first established the venture as a way to sell beef from the cattle they raised to a retail market.
The Prairie Rose grew to include a chapel and a cemetery before it was shut down in 2007 following the Wild West World closing and bankruptcy. It has since reopened under new management.
"People wanted to get married there and buried there," Etheredge said. "We had people coming and going."