Update by Chuck Fager
Wichita, Kansas — Throughout the eight days of testimony in the Priscilla Deters-Productions Plus trial, U.S. District Judge Monti Belot was a model of judicial impartiality.
He reminded the jury that the defendant was presumed innocent, that she did not have to prove anything, and that they were not to draw negative inferences from her decision not to testify. Before they left to deliberate, he instructed jurors that her good faith and character alone would be sufficient reasons to find her not guilty.
Deters was originally charged with fourteen counts of wire and mail fraud, in connection with a church fundraising scheme that cost its victims almost $6.5 million, including over $400,000 from Cherokee area residents. Two of the counts were later dismissed by the prosecution.
Early Friday afternoon, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty on all twelve remaining counts, after deliberating about three hours.
Once the verdict was rendered, Belot held a hearing on whether to allow Deters to remain free on bail until she is sentenced. At the hearing, Belot shed his air of impartiality, and became a tower of seething judicial wrath.
When defense counsel Steve Gradert began to explain that Deters had some supporters who were willing to co-sign a surety bond for her, Belot interrupted to reject this gesture as “a worthless promise. After the testimony I’ve heard,” he continued, “their signatures don’t mean anything to me.”
One of the proffered co-signers was George Brown, a retired clergyman and educator who had been in Wichita with Deters throughout the trial. Brown was on the board of a trust Deters set up in the early 1990s, which supposedly oversaw her program of “matching gifts” to church groups.
But under withering cross-examination by government attorneys, Brown admitted that he had loaned Deters over $200,000, much of which has not been repaid, that he knew virtually nothing of the actual operations of Productions Plus beyond what she told him, and that many of her activities disclosed by government evidence would have been clearly improper.
Gradert attempted to reassure the judge, insisting that Deters was unlikely to pose any physical danger to others, and was unlikely to flee.
Again Belot angrily brushed aside his efforts. “I can tell you right now,” he said, “there will be no conditions of release that will not include a substantial professional surety,” or bail.
Deters was indicted in December of 1996. After her arraignment on the charges, bail was set at $25,000, and she was released on her own recognizance, which means she did not have to put up any funds or property to guarantee the bail. Judge Belot made clear today that this situation would not continue.
“This woman is a risk to any honest person,” Belot thundered, “and that makes her a risk to the community.”
He declared that he would set bail at not less than $250,000, “and probably higher than that.” “This woman stole millions of dollars,” Belot continued, “and some of that has not been accounted for. I’ll make sure that not a penny of any bail that is posted is made up of any of the money that she stole.”
Presumably this would mean Deters could not offer her house in Walnut, California as surety, because government evidence indicated she had made many mortgage payments on it with funds from her “investors.” It might also prevent her family members from assisting her, inasmuch as trial evidence likewise showed she had spent at least $800,000 on her sons and other family expenses.
In addition, all of Deters assets are in the custody of a receiver appointed by a California state court to distribute them among her victims, which include churches and individuals in twenty-one states. However, the receiver, attorney Richard Clements of Signal Hill, has told this reporter that after two and a half years in that position, he has yet to recover any assets.
Belot continued the bond hearing until Monday, to give Deters and her attorneys time to develop a plan by which she might be able to remain free until the sentencing. Defense counsel indicated that sentencing usually takes place not less than seventy days after a trial, during which time a sentencing investigation is conducted and a report prepared.
Whether or not Deters can figure out a way to persuade Belot to leave her at liberty until then, the judge left her in no doubt as to his intentions.
“I’ll guarantee you, Mrs. Deters,” he said to her, “you better bring your toothbrush when you come for sentencing, because I’m going to send you to jail.”
To Gradert he added, “She doesn’t have a prayer on appeal. She had a fair trial, and there’s not a single issue of any substance for an appeal. She’s been found guilty, and is guilty. So she may as well start serving her sentence right now. I have heard nothing during this trial to convince me that she is anything but a crook, of the first water.”
According to the federal statutes involved, Deters could receive up to four years in prison for each guilty count, and a fine of up to $250,000.
Gradert explained in an interview that actual sentencing decisions are governed by an elaborate set of federal sentencing guidelines. Such factors as the amount of money involved, the number of victims, the intricacy of the conspiracy, and so forth are calculated and a score developed.
The higher the score, the longer the likely range of sentence. Judges exercise their discretion within the range set by the calculations under the guidelines.
During the trial, Steve Gradert tried repeatedly to suggest that Deters was being “framed” by other witnesses in the trial, to cover up their own thefts and fraud. He targeted especially Maurice Roberts, former Superintendent of Mid-America Yearly Meeting.
While waiting for the bail hearing to begin, I asked Gradert about this: Why the frequent insinuations, but not any actual evidence?
He grinned ruefully and shook his head. “Hey,” he said, “if I’d had any evidence, don’t you think I would have introduced it?”