March 5, 1998: Deters Trial–“Just a scam” or “Good faith” Now the Jury Decides

Update by Chuck Fager

Wichita, Kansas — Nine women and three men are now to decide Priscilla Deters’ fate.

Was her Productions Plus business, as prosecutor Annette Gurney charged in her closing remarks Thursday, “just a scam”?

Or was it, as defense counsel Steve Gradert put it, the sincere but failed effort of “an honest, hardworking Christian woman”?

Judge Monti Belot’s instructions made clear that the issue of purpose is the heart of the case. Whether Deters had an “intent to defraud” the church groups and members who poured $6.5 million into her business accounts, is now up to the jury to determine.

Lead prosecutor Annette Gurney spoke to jurors across a large table piled high with documents–checks, bank statements, trust forms, letters, memos and faxes, stretching back to 1990. These were the government’s exhibits, reams of evidence which Gurney claimed proves that “Priscilla Deters lied,” repeatedly and criminally to her clients, in “a scheme and artifice to defraud.”

She lied, Gurney contended, when she told them she had millions of dollars in a trust fund to distribute. She lied when she told them their investments would be kept safe in CDs. She lied about having profitable businesses to finance her matching gift program. And she lied, Gurney repeated, when she told them she would double their investments in a year, without risk.

Deters also failed to tell her clients many things, Gurney continued. She didn’t tell her clients that she was spending their money on her personal expenses, or her children, or care for her aged mother.

“Hindsight is always 20-20,” Gurney said, “and you may ask yourselves, how could anyone fall for a scam like this?”

The evidence showed Deters used referrals, Gurney said, recommendations from prominent figures in church circles, some of whom served on “a bogus board of trustees.” The prosecutor charged that Deters misled many groups by sending them altered copies of CDs, on which their names had been typed. Deters also sent them regular “beneficiary reports,” showing large amounts of “matching funds” in nonexistent accounts.

In light of this, Gurney said, “it’s not so astonishing that the church groups fell for her scam.” Then she took aim at a key defense witness.

“What’s astonishing,” Gurney insisted, “is that Randy Littlefield could take this [witness] stand, after he signed up so many people in Cherokee for the program, after he signed up his church in League City, Texas, after he signed up his own mother–that he could take this stand and can tell you how honest she is.

“Now that’s astonishing,” Gurney said. “All Deters was, was a shrewd, calculating thief.”

When Gurney finished, defense counsel Steve Gradert rose to insist that the evidence showed nothing of the sort. Quoting a character in the Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke,” he said that, “‘what we have here is a failure to communicate.’”

Gradert reminded the jury that he had asked almost every witness on both sides of the case whether Deters was a difficult person to understand when she talked, and invariably they said she was. Misunderstanding was compounded, he continued, by “a lot of people in this case who were greedy, who let their greed overcome their understanding of what was being said.”

These greedy misunderstandings were spread widely, Gradert said, by persons who may have been pursuing their own private interests and profit.

Gradert identified three such possible culprits: Maurice Roberts, former Superintendent of the Mid-America Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, Charles Crosby, Deters’ onetime sales representative, and R.J. Wegner, the Nazarene Church Superintendent for North and South Dakota. Roberts was forced to resign by Kansas Quakers in 1994 when the program collapsed and the yearly meeting faced losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Deters fired Crosby for what she said were his misrepresentations of her program. And Wegner’s Dakota Nazarenes lost over $500,000 on Productions Plus.

All three testified last week as witnesses for the prosecution.

“Randy Littlefield may have sold his mother on this program,” Gradert argued, “but he had faith in the program as a covenant. He has more credibility in this case than Maurice Roberts or R. J. Wegner. They didn’t understand the program, or they took advantage of it,” said, adding that, “we don’t know whether they personally got money out of the program.”

Gradert recounted how Wegner urged his pastors to borrow money from their own members to get in on Deters’ program. “And when the state issued a cease and desist order, Wegner started funneling the money to his pastor friend in California. He says it was Deters’ idea, but he did it.”

Gradert then took particular aim at Roberts. “Nobody ever checked Maurice Roberts’ bank accounts,” he said. “How much credibility can he have?”

He noted that Roberts’ latest employer, Philip Harmon, pled guilty last year to fraud charges in an insurance and investment scam that cost victims almost $40 million dollars. “Is it a coincidence that Maurice Roberts is around all this fraud?” Gradert asked. “I submit he’s lying to you when he says the Priscilla Deters misled him about her program.”

“In a case like this,” Gradert concluded, “which turns on intention, I submit that you have to look at character.”

He then reminded them that several of Deters’ friends and supporters had testified to her honesty. “She still owes many of them money, and yet they continue to believe in her. The government will tell you that they’re scared they won’t let their money back. But I submit it is because they know her and know her character. I submit this makes for a reasonable doubt, which should lead you to a not guilty verdict.”

Prosecutor Allen Metzger had the last word. “Good character can be a defense in a fraud case,” he acknowledged. “But here, the defendant’s character doesn’t stand alone. It stands in the piercing light of the evidence, documentary evidence. And what representations did the defendant make regarding the assets in her trust account? Five million dollars at one time, fifteen million another time.

“But what do the facts show? She opened one of her trust accounts with exactly one penny. And she opened the other with $150.”

“The question of greed has been raised by the defense,” he said. “I’m glad it has been raised.” He repeated the prosecution’s figures which showed Deters spending almost three million dollars on personal, family and business expenses, insisting, “She did not tell one person that that’s where she was spending that money.”

“She sent investors beneficiary reports which identified their money as being ‘non-expendable,’ but she spent it. And if so, good faith is not a defense.”

The jury was sent out to begin its preliminary work at 4:35 PM, and is expected to deliberate in earnest beginning Friday morning.

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