Crime & Courts

Etheredge sentenced to 5 years in prison

Wild West World founder Thomas Etheredge was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for misleading investors who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the failed theme park.

In an unusual pre-sentencing agreement with prosecutors, Etheredge agreed not to appeal his convictions on seven counts of securities fraud.

Prosecutors, in exchange, agreed not to seek consecutive sentences on the multiple counts.

District Judge Ben Burgess, after noting that the agreement was not legally binding, imposed a sentence that will allow Etheredge to be released from prison before his 60th birthday.

With nearly a year of time already served in jail, Etheredge, 55, could be released in July 2013 if he receives the standard 15 percent time off for good behavior, defense lawyer Steve Joseph said.

Under state law, Etheredge faced a sentence of 57 to 64 months in prison on the primary securities fraud charge.

After the presentencing agreement took consecutive sentences off the table, the only contested issue was where the sentence should be set on that primary charge.

Rick Fleming, general counsel for the Kansas Securities Commissioner's Office, argued that Etheredge should serve the maximum 64 months, partly because of his prior convictions.

Etheredge served three years in prison on another securities fraud case in 1987.

Joseph asked for the minimum 57 months, citing the more than two decades that have elapsed since those convictions. He said Etheredge has contributed a lot to society since then.

"A certain amount of good will built up over time, and he ought to get credit for it," he said.

Despite the presentence agreement, Burgess said he retained the authority to impose consecutive sentences and send Etheredge to prison for as long as 10 years and eight months. But Burgess said he did not think consecutive sentences were warranted in the case.

After settling on a compromise sentence of 60 months on the primary charge, Burgess ordered Etheredge to pay $550,000 in restitution to the victims of the crimes.

Fleming said after the hearing that the presentence agreement was reached late Thursday afternoon. Without the agreement, he said, he would have recommended that Etheredge serve at least some of the sentences consecutively. He declined to say exactly how much time he had planned to ask for.

Joseph said after the hearing that Etheredge made a significant concession by dropping his right to appeal. He said several issues in the case would have provided a solid basis for an appeal.

Had an appeal been filed, Joseph said, it would have taken two years to work its way through the courts. By then, he said, Etheredge would be nearing the end of his prison sentence.

After hearing from nearly 40 witnesses, a Sedgwick County District Court jury convicted Etheredge of the seven charges in February.

Prosecutors maintained during the trial that Etheredge misled investors by failing to tell them about his criminal past.

The defense argued that Etheredge provided enough information about his past —largely through the book "Real Men, Real Faith," which carried an account of his religious conversion while in prison.

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