Crime & Courts

A lawyer embezzled tens of thousands from Kansas couple — now they may lose their home

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When Roger and Marcia Altis’ family business didn’t quite work out as planned — especially after Roger’s first heart attack — they decided to file for bankruptcy.

Medical and other bills had piled up. The Internal Revenue Service came calling, demanding tax money.

So the Eureka couple hired a Wichita attorney who they thought would help shepherd them through the financial mess.

Instead, that attorney, Christopher O’Brien, made it worse — by stealing money meant to pay down the Altises’ debt.

O’Brien, 69, last month pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement in the case — and agreed to pay nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in restitution to the Altises and two other clients who accused him of thievery. He’s set for sentencing at the federal courthouse in Wichita on June 3, according to court records.

What’s already been a horrible ordeal for the Altises has taken another difficult turn:

The couple is now at risk of losing their home over unpaid property tax they thought the estate would handle. In March, they received notice that they had only a short period of time to come up with more than $24,000 to pay to Greenwood County — or what’s left of their land, where their house and garden sit, will be sold to the highest bidder at a sheriff’s auction.

“Everything’s been ripped from them. Now they’re about to lose the roof over their heads,” the couple’s daughter, Chasity Zeckser, said.

Court records don’t list a date for the sheriff’s sale. The Altises fear they only have 30 days.

“It’s just been kind of one mess after another,” Roger said.

The Altises say they were told the money to pay the taxes would come from their bankruptcy estate. But that’s the money O’Brien pocketed, according to court records.

And while the State of Kansas Client Protection Fund and insurance have reimbursed the estate for the loss, the Altises say they’ve been told whatever balance is left after all of their creditors are paid won’t come quick enough to save their home.

“They want to take my land that I’ve owned for 40 years plus and throw it on a tax sale and sell it to someone for a little bit of nothing,” Roger said.

“Everything that I’ve earned over the years — that’s the last of it. They’ve taken everything else.”

The attorney defending O’Brien in the federal embezzlement case did not return messages seeking comment for this story. As part of O’Brien’s plea deal, he’s agreed to pay restitution of:

  • $132,447.31 for the Altis embezzlement
  • $554,889 to the bankruptcy estate of a Wichita machine shop called Machining Programming Manufacturing Inc. O’Brien’s plea agreement says he misappropriated and transferred property for his own use from 2010 to 2012 and then “took steps to hide his embezzlement.”
  • $51,500 to a group of Hawker Beechcraft retirees who hired O’Brien in 2013 to file a proof of claim on their behalf in the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The retirees paid that amount in attorneys fees, which was later reimbursed by Hawker. But O’Brien kept the money for himself rather than returning it to his clients, according to the plea agreement.

O’Brien voluntarily surrendered his Kansas law license on Nov. 10, 2015, after a complaint alleging he’d stolen client funds was docketed for investigation with the office of the Disciplinary Administrator.

The Kansas Supreme Court ordered his disbarment two weeks later.

‘Highly recommended’

Zeckser says her parents bought their property “when it was just a piece of grass” and built it up into the home they have today.

It’s a place for bonfires, family dinners, summer swims and playdates with grandkids.

“Mom has a big Easter egg hunt every year that even us adults get in on. Just yesterday we were over here, and the kids were riding their bikes around,” Zeckser said on a recent Monday.

“The thought of them not having it is not an option.”

Roger says the problems started about 10 years ago “when the IRS came in grabbing.”

The oil field business he started in 2007 with his sons Chad and Cody, RCCA Well Service — “RCCA” for Roger, Chad and Cody Altis — owed thousands in taxes to the IRS. Then Roger’s health went downhill and the medical bills piled up.

With little hope of an immediate fix to stave off tax collectors, Roger and Marcia decided to file for bankruptcy in 2010.

“We owed them a ton of money,” Roger said.

Their daughter, Zeckser, suggested hiring Christopher O’Brien, a Wichita attorney whose name she heard mentioned when she was in college.

“He came to us highly recommended,” the Altises said. “. . . But it opened the doors for him to siphon the money.”

The Altises say O’Brien urged them to sell their oil lease, saying the proceeds would cover all the debt.

When they got the $350,000 check from the buyer, they turned it over to O’Brien, Zeckser said.

She still has a copy of the check in her files.

But no one seems to know what happened to the money and apparently there’s no record of it in the bankruptcy trust fund, she said. (It’s not a part of the federal embezzlement case.)

With an open bankruptcy case still pending by 2014 and much of the Altises’ property already sold off to help pay down debt, the family decided to auction their business assets to raise more cash.

“We thought we were done. We were going to have a sale and scale down” the business, Roger said, recalling the plans.

But eventually “we had to close the doors.”

‘Red flags’

The Altises say they realized something was off with O’Brien when the IRS continued demanding payment after the business auction. They were confused.

Wasn’t the trust fund money supposed to pay off that debt?

The auctioneer paid the sale proceeds to O’Brien. So there should be at least $132,447.31 in the trust.

“Red flags started flying,” Roger said.

The family started asking O’Brien and his law office for the fund’s ledger, Zeckser said.

Soon after, O’Brien withdrew as attorney for the bankruptcy case, citing retirement.

“It’s very stressful. It’s financially impacted everyone. As a family business, we were all employed there,” said Zeckser, who was an office worker and bookkeeper for RCCA Well Service while her brothers and dad ran the equipment.

“But honestly I don’t think you could put a dollar amount on what it’s done to their (Roger and Marcia’s) health,” she said. Her dad is still having health problems.

Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against O’Brien on Jan. 23. He pleaded guilty on March 18 to one count of embezzlement against the Altises’ estate — a crime that carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine

The Altises say they still have no clue what O’Brien did with their money.

“We would like to know,” Zeckser said. “We’ve never been privileged enough to find out.”

‘Fall apart’

Today, close to 10 years later, the Altises are still dealing with their bankruptcy. They blame O’Brien for dragging it out by changing the type of bankruptcy — which, coupled with the embezzlement, they say — put them in their current bind.

Greenwood County filed a tax lien against the last four tracts of the Altises’ land in February 2018. Court records indicate the couple didn’t answer or otherwise formally respond to the petition within the allotted time.

On March 6, Greenwood County District Court David Ricke found them in default and ordered the sheriff’s sale.

To save their home and land, the couple has to pay off the taxes due plus penalties and interest before the sale takes place. That total was $24,806.03 as of Dec. 31, according to court records.

“I really don’t know what to think about the whole deal. It’s just kind of hard to imagine,” Roger said.

“It’s like a doctor. You go in to have your right foot operated on. And you come out and have your left foot missing. … It’s kind of hard to swallow.”

Zeckser has set up accounts at www.gofundme.com/RogerMarcia-Altis and at Community National Bank in Eureka to collect donations for her parents.

Asked what they plan to do if they can’t come up with the cash and the sale goes through, Roger said: “I haven’t even thought about it.”

But Marcia had. “Fall apart.”

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.
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