February 5, 2010

Prosecution, defense rest in Etheredge case

WICHITA — Both the prosecution and the defense rested their cases this afternoon in the securities fraud trial of Thomas Etheredge.

WICHITA — Both the prosecution and the defense rested their cases this afternoon in the securities fraud trial of Thomas Etheredge.

Judge Ben Burgess will meet with attorneys from both sides Monday morning 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.

The final day of 10 days of testimony featured sparring between Kansas Securities Exchange Commissioner Chris Biggs, who is prosecuting the case, and Etheredge, the founder of Wild West World.

Biggs tried to get to the bottom line with his final question of this morning's cross-examination:

"You haven't made an effort to hide your criminal convictions?" Biggs asked Etheredge.

"I don't know how one could be more forthright than I have," Etheredge replied.

Earlier, 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."

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 pled no contest to nine counts in Wyandotte County.

Biggs showed Etheredge the criminal complaint in the case and pointed out the language read "willfully, feloniously and intentionally . . . offer a sale of security . . . 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.

Biggs also asked Etheredge about some of the investors, including Brown.

" (Brown) told you he wanted to invest $50,000, and you said you wanted $100,000," Biggs said.

"That's not the way it was," Etheredge said. "Would you like to hear about the conversation?

"Yes," Biggs said.

"I'd be happy to tell you," Etheredge said.

Etheredge said he didn't know Brown. Brown had testified he learned of the investment possibility through a mutual friend.

" (Brown) wouldn't leave me alone . . . he kept calling," Etheredge said. "We finally set up a meeting. I told him I was in process of trying to make payroll and that I was out of money for payroll.

"In the course of that conversation, Brown asked, 'What do you need?' I said I needed $100,000 for payroll. He said he was thinking about $50,000. His words were, 'Why don't we split the difference and make it $75,000?' "

Defense attorney Steve Joseph was supposed to resume his redirect questioning of Etheredge after the noon recess. But he said he had no further questions.

After a few more questions from Biggs, Etheredge left the stand.

Biggs called an additional witness this afternoon: Gail Brenton, a bookkeeper for Etheredge for two years at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper and Wild West World.

Biggs asked Brenton what Etheredge's character trait was as far as honesty.

"He's honest," said Brenton, who worked for Etheredge from December 2005 until the park closed in July 2007.

Biggs then asked what being forthright and forthcoming meant to her.

"It means to come forward and tell the whole truth," Brenton said.

"Have you formed an opinion about whether Mr. Etheredge is forthright and forthcoming?" Biggs asked.

"Negative," she replied.

The judge in the case, Ben Burgess, ruled this afternoon that the jury may see a video of a talk that Etheredge gave on July 4, 2004, at Central Christian Church in Wichita. Etheredge made reference to the talk during a news conference with Wichita media in September 2005 to discuss his criminal background.

Morning testimony

Etheredge actually asked the morning's first question.

Just as was ready to begin his questioning, Etheredge interrupted and 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.

"It's hard for me to remember," he said. "I'd like to share some information, shed some light now."

Biggs replied, "You'll get that chance (later)."

"OK, I just wanted to offer that help to you," Etheredge said. "This medication runs on you. I have six or seven medications I use. I just want to make sure I'm communicating the correct information."

Biggs noted that Etheredge had a stack of medication packs at the witness stand.

"Do you have to take those packs of medication this morning?" Biggs asked.

"No," said Etheredge.

Biggs then asked Burgess to have the medications placed at the defense counsel's table.

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.

Moments later, 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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