Wild West World founder Etheredge scheduled to get out of prison Monday

Thomas and Cheryl Etheredge at a news conference in July 2007 announcing that Wild West World had ceased day-to-day operations and was negotiating for a buyer.
Thomas and Cheryl Etheredge at a news conference in July 2007 announcing that Wild West World had ceased day-to-day operations and was negotiating for a buyer. File photo

Thomas Etheredge, the cowboy entrepreneur whose dream of a Western-themed amusement park landed him in prison for securities fraud, is scheduled to be released Monday, the state Department of Corrections confirmed Wednesday.

Etheredge, 59, is completing a little more than three years of a five-year sentence handed down in Sedgwick County District Court, after a jury found him guilty of seven counts of securities fraud for misleading investors in the financially embattled amusement park Wild West World, located on I-135 in Park City.

He has been confined since March 2011 at the Wichita Work Release Center downtown after serving the first year of his sentence at state prisons in El Dorado and Winfield.

Two of Etheredge‘s partners — one investor and a Park City official — said Wednesday that it is time to move on and forgive the boisterous, 6-foot-6-inch cowboy who blew into town in 2004 with promises of hundreds of thousands of visitors to his amusement park.

“I really thought that with his prior history, he would have gotten more of a sentence,” said Michael Porter, a Valley Center accountant who invested and lost $100,000 in the park.

“Time flies,” Porter said with a chuckle. “But I’ll tell you, it’s time to move on. My wife and I don’t harbor any ill will. We’ve decided to forgive him for whatever it was he did.”

“Looking back, I really believe his intent was pure,” said Jack Whitson, Park City’s longtime administrator. “He wanted very desperately to build a Western theme park, and it didn’t work out the way he planned. People get desperate when things happen, and they do desperate things.”

The Sedgwick County jury found in February 2010 that Etheredge misled investors in the park — including his Wichita pastor, Terry Fox — as construction costs spiraled over budget.

Wild West World opened on May 5, 2007, on a weekend marred by a massive tornado outbreak in Kansas, including the tornado that devastated Greensburg. It closed on July 9, 2007, with Etheredge blaming a wet summer for lagging attendance. The park filed for bankruptcy the same day.

After several attempts by the federal bankruptcy court to sell the park to investors, its assets were auctioned off in November 2010. The only remaining pieces of the park visible just east of the interstate are a Western-themed hotel that opened in conjunction with the park, and the park’s Johnny Western Theater, a metal building.

Since the case began, Etheredge has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and has suffered a stroke.

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” Porter said. “I hope he can get his life back together, and doing that is tougher when your health fails.”

Whitson echoed Porter’s sentiments.

“We are left with land that isn’t developed with half-torn-down buildings on it,” he said. “Hopefully, something will be developed there soon. But we wish him and his family the best. The city has no animosity toward him.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle