Crime & Courts

Thomas Etheredge's defense begins today

The defense is scheduled to begin presenting its case to the jury this morning in the securities fraud trial of Wild West World founder Thomas Etheredge.

Defense attorney Steve Joseph said it hasn't been decided whether Etheredge will testify.

Investors represented in the nine counts of securities fraud gave Etheredge a total of $735,000 to help him start the theme park, according to testimony and evidence presented by the state. Included on that list of investors are two physicians, two pastors, one accountant and an aircraft industry worker.

Most of the investors gave Etheredge their money within months of the park opening in May 2007. The $24 million park closed two months later and went into bankruptcy. Etheredge cited construction cost overruns and poor weather for the failure.

Etheredge gave a variety of terms for return on the investments, according to testimony by the investors. They ranged from 50 to 100 percent returns to unspecified amounts tied to how well the park did.

Investors also have testified to a variety of reasons for giving Etheredge money to build Wild West World. Those included Etheredge's past business success, his jail-house conversion in the late 1980s, his reputation in the community and information he provided for the projected success of the park.

Among them was David Brown, a retired Wichita physician, who invested $75,000 with Etheredge in Wild West World.

"Mr. Etheredge is a very impressive person, a wonderful salesman," Brown testified last week. "I was very much misled, or duped."

The state contends that Etheredge didn't present a complete picture to the investors.

Investors testified that they didn't know Etheredge didn't pay his 2005 income taxes or that he missed a payment in 2006 on the land where his Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper was. Investors also said they weren't aware he had two prior felony convictions, including one for securities fraud in the mid-1980s, and that some of his business-success stories weren't completely true.

During cross-examination, the defense has tried to show there were extenuating circumstances involving some of those issues.

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday after calling 21 witnesses over nearly a six-day period. The trial was in recess Thursday and Friday because Sedgwick County District Judge Ben Burgess had prior commitments for those days.

Joseph delayed giving his opening statement, something he said he hasn't done as a defense lawyer in 39 years of practice. One character witness did testify for the defense last week because she wasn't going to be available this week.

Joseph said he expects the jury will begin deliberating by the end of the week.