Crime & Courts

Ex-Wichita attorney who stole from bankrupt clients gets prison in embezzlement case

A former Wichita attorney who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his bankrupt clients was sentenced Tuesday to three years in prison.

Christopher O’Brien, 69, must also pay $603,000 in restitution, U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a news release.

O’Brien pleaded guilty in March to one count of embezzling from the bankruptcy estate of Roger and Marcia Altis. The Eureka couple told The Eagle earlier this year that the money O’Brien stole was supposed to go toward their debt after financial troubles at their family’s oil field business forced them into bankruptcy in 2010.

But instead of paying the bills, they said, O’Brien dragged out their case, ultimately pocketing $132,447.31 in proceeds from a business asset auction. The Altises nearly lost their home in a tax sale earlier this year due to the theft.

And, they told The Eagle, they still don’t know what happened to a $350,000 check O’Brien received after an oil lease was sold.

The amount stolen from the Altises makes up part of the more than half a million in restitution U.S. District Judge John Broomes ordered O’Brien to pay during his sentencing hearing.

He also has agreed to turn over $554,889 to the bankruptcy estate of a Wichita machine shop called Machining Programming Manufacturing Inc. that he stole from between 2010 and 2012 and $51,500 to a group of Hawker Beechcraft retirees who hired O’Brien in 2013 to file a claim on their behalf in the company’s bankruptcy case.

Hawker reimbursed the retirees for their attorney’s fees, but O’Brien kept the money for himself instead of returning it to his clients, according to his plea agreement.

O’Brien, in six pages of typed testimony filed as an attachment to an Oct. 4 sentencing memorandum, described a more than 25-year pattern of embezzlement from law firms and clients to feed his “lust for money and to keep my image up.”

His handling of more recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases amounted to a five-year Ponzi scheme where he used “money from the next case to pay the creditors from the old case,” the testimony says.

Meanwhile, he lavished his family with expensive trips and weddings, a costly home renovation, season sports tickets and a country club membership.

“I justified my actions always saying that I was going to pay it all back,” he wrote in the testimony, “but I was always in the hole.”

O’Brien voluntarily surrendered his law license in 2015. He was disbarred two weeks later.

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