'Madoff of the Midwest' gets nine years for bilking farmers

ST. LOUIS | A Missouri woman was sentenced today to nine years in federal prison for a grain fraud scheme that bilked 179 farmers out of a combined $27.4 million and earned her the nickname the "Madoff of the Midwest."

Cathy Gieseker, 45, of Martinsburg, pleaded guilty to one felony count of mail fraud in November. U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw also ordered Gieseker to pay restitution to the victims, though he doubted she could ever come up with such a large amount of money.

"These people trusted you," Shaw told Gieseker at the hearing. "You took advantage of them."

Gieseker read a statement in court apologizing to the victims and to her family, including her two daughters who sobbed as the sentence was read.

"All of these people were like family to me," Gieseker said of the victims. "I never intended to hurt anyone."

She said she will do everything possible "to make sure they are paid what they are owed."

That seems like a long shot. State agriculture officials have estimated the victims will likely get about 2 percent of their losses back.

About a dozen of the victims were in the courtroom. All declined to comment after the hearing.

The Ponzi scheme has led some to refer to Gieseker as rural America's version of Bernard Madoff, the financier who pleaded guilty to bilking investors of billions of dollars. While the scale of Gieseker's theft didn't come close to Madoff's, many of her investors, like Madoff's, are facing financial ruin. In a court document, prosecutors said 43 victims suffered losses in excess of $200,000, and seven suffered losses greater than $500,000.

For years, Gieseker and her husband, Timothy, ran T.J. Gieseker Farms and Trucking in Martinsburg. She continued the business after he died of cancer in 2007.

Gieseker was active in the tiny northeast Missouri community, working with 4-H and serving on the school board.