Crime & Courts

February 3, 2010

Cheryl Etheredge testifies in husband's defense

In a firm and largely controlled tone, Cheryl Etheredge came to the defense of her husband while handling question after question from attorneys.

In a firm and largely controlled tone, Cheryl Etheredge came to the defense of her husband while handling question after question from attorneys.

"No one knows a man better than his wife," she testified Tuesday in the securities fraud trial of Wild West World founder Thomas Etheredge. "I know he lives privately what he speaks in public.''

Cheryl Etheredge was the last to testify of 16 witnesses called by the defense in the past two days.

Her testimony was a prelude to her husband taking the stand today.

Thomas Etheredge is expected to testify this morning in Sedgwick County District Court, as the defense wraps up its case.

Tuesday, the defense continued to try to poke holes in the state's case for the nine counts of securities fraud.

The defense called a banker and the former chief of finance for the Small Business Administration's district office to show that others were willing to invest in Wild West World.

Also testifying were also two character witnesses. A.J. Morris testified that he didn't regret giving $100,000 to Etheredge for the failed theme park.

"The main reason I invested is he was a brother in church and he was asking for help," Morris said.

But Cheryl Etheredge's testimony covered the most ground — their 21 years of marriage.

She defied previous testimony that disputed claims in the book, "Real Men, Real Faith," that she and Thomas worked long hours to build a modest home and improve a cattle operation.

Starting with one bull and a cow in 1990, Etheredge said she and her husband eventually had more than 200 head of cattle.

Kansas Securities Commissioner Chris Biggs, who is prosecuting the case, summarized her testimony when questioned by defense attorney Chris Joseph by saying that she switched from a small church in Benton to the Wichita Christian Center in the late 1980s so she would have a greater opportunity to meet men.

"That's not what I said," she interrupted. "That's what my parents said. I went there because I was searching for more spiritual (growth)."

She did end up meeting Thomas at the Wichita Christian Center. He began attending there while on work release from the Winfield Correctional Facility.

Cheryl Etheredge also said that Gary Hamilton, an accountant for the Etheredges and later the theme park, told them not to pay their 2005 income taxes because projected losses in 2006 would cover taxes owed the previous year.

Hamilton had previously testified that he did not tell Etheredges to follow that strategy, which is allowed by IRS rules.

Cheryl Etheredge also countered a previous claim in testimony that the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper had started to lose money as her husband turned his attention to the theme park.

"The (profit) was usually around 12 percent," she said. "That's very high for an eating venue. Usually it's around 5 percent. We worked very hard to manage the money."

The state has said that Etheredge failed to tell investors he delayed making a 2006 loan payment for land purchased from Cheryl's uncle, Marvin Whitson.

"About that time, there weren't enough funds to pay Mr. Whitson?" Biggs asked.

Cheryl Etheredge said the funds were available to make the $9,000 payment, but Thomas asked Whitson if he could delay the payment so there would be more cash available for the theme park. Whitson testified earlier that he agreed to the delay.

Biggs later showed minutes from a December 2006 meeting, when Thomas Etheredge wrote, "Payments on land to Etheredge family were delayed."

In response to Biggs' observation, Cheryl Etheredge said, "Marvin isn't the Etheredge family."

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