by Gwen Moritz
Posted 6/24/2014 11:14 am
Updated 4 months ago
James W. "Jim" Bolt professed himself "nonplussed" to learn that convictions decades ago would send him to prison for years longer than federal sentencing guidelines suggested.
"I'm 61 years old," Bolt told U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks of Fayetteville in a hearing that lasted more than four hours on Monday. "The range you're talking about is essentially a life sentence."
Bolt had shuffled to the lectern in orange-and-white striped Washington County jail clothing, white socks and plastic slippers inches longer than his feet. Before pleading guilty in January to three counts — wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering — his last conviction had been in the mid-1990s.
"In the interim, I've had a good life. I haven't broken any laws. I haven't even had a traffic ticket," Bolt told the judge. "The mistakes I made were paid for."
Whether Brooks believed that or not, he agreed with defense attorney Andrew R. "Drew" Miller that arrests that didn't result in convictions should not be considered in determining the sentence for Bolt's latest adventure in white-collar crime because they weren't described in enough detail in the government's pre-sentencing report. The judge also agreed that charges of investment fraud brought against Bolt in 2006 should not be considered because a jury delivered a straight-up acquittal.
Brooks nonetheless ordered Bolt to serve 100 months in federal prison — 29 months longer than the maximum contemplated by federal sentencing guidelines — to be followed by three years of supervised release. He fined Bolt $50,000 on top of the $2.5 million in restitution that had been part of a plea deal under which additional charges were dismissed.
"My biggest concern, Mr. Bolt, [is] if you were to get out in 57 to 71 months, you're going to be right back out there committing another scheme," Brooks said.
Three previous convictions and a total of 10 years spent in prison didn't deter Bolt from using phony documents, forged signatures, fake notary seals and fictitious people to steal unclaimed assets being held by the states of California and Nevada.
"You have simply learned from what you participated in years ago and come back with bigger and better," Brooks said.
'A Certain Amount of Genius'
Brooks, who inherited Bolt's case from retiring U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson in April, acknowledged "a certain amount of genius" in the frauds that Bolt laundered through a supposed nonprofit that he operated in Rogers called Situs Cancer Research Center.
For his part, Bolt acknowledged that, with a few changes in details, a description of his 1982 crimes written by a federal appeals court would apply to the crimes for which he was arrested last August. He had been in county jail — first in Benton County, then in Washington County — ever since.
Most of Monday's hearing was spent debating whether Bolt had stolen $2.4 million or $2.5 million with his latest scheme and whether it could properly be considered "sophisticated."
The questions were not mere quibbles: Crimes valued at $2.5 million or more and frauds committed by use of "sophisticated means" get more points on the sentencing guideline matrix, points that can mean additional months or years in federal prison.
Neither Bolt's name or signature appeared on the fraudulent documents used to claim $108,000 from the estate of a Nevada woman with the improbable name of Halloween Barigar, who died in 2002 at age 96. If that amount were backed out of the total fraud attributed to Bolt, it would mean two fewer points on the sentencing matrix.
FBI Special Agent Robert Cessario, under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Glen Hines, testified that the documents used to make the Nevada claim were similar to computer documents found in a search of Bolt's home, and they were signed by Bolt's girlfriend, Nikki Sailer, and by a "Leah Cleveland," who was supposed to be a Situs executive. His investigation led Cessario, and ultimately Judge Brooks, to conclude that Leah Cleveland was not a real person.
Regardless of who signed the documents, the money from Halloween Barigar's estate was transferred into Situs' same Liberty Bank account, controlled by Bolt, into which the proceeds of four similar claims for assets held by the state of California were deposited.
After Cessario's testimony, Bolt's defense attorney gave up hope of keeping the Barigar $108,000 out of the fraud total.
"I do concede now that we know who got the money and who spent the money," Miller said.
The judge agreed.
"It is well established, and I think Mr. Miller has even conceded, that Bolt is Situs," Brooks said.
Miller, in attempting to minimize his client's punishment, argued that Bolt's scheme was not sophisticated enough to warrant two extra points on the sentencing matrix. "In any fraud there's fraud," he told the court.
But Judge Brooks cited testimony by Agent Cessario that showed that Bolt's fraud went beyond just the faking of documents and signatures. He also created a corporate history linking Situs to a legitimate but short-lived Little Rock nonprofit called Life Preservers Inc. to make it appear that the nonprofit he incorporated in August 2010 had a history of charitable work dating to the early 1990s. (Bolt made his first known claim on unclaimed property about six weeks after incorporating Situs.)
By claiming the unclaimed assets in the name of a cancer research nonprofit, "Mr. Bolt preyed upon what he hoped would be the altruistic nature in everyone," Brooks said.
Bolt also used Ph.D. after his name on Situs documents and routinely answered to "Dr. Bolt," although Cessario said he could find no evidence of academic achievement by Bolt beyond a G.E.D.
"People who engage in garden-variety fraud don't typically hold themselves out as having a Ph.D. in molecular biology," Brooks noted.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently overruled a district judge who had applied the two extra sentencing points for sophistication to a defendant who merely used a post office box to further his fraud. But Bolt's scheme "wasn't a simple scheme at all. It was a very complex, well-thought-out scheme," Brooks said, and he applied the points when calculating the sentence.
Brooks, in finding that the loss Bolt caused exceeded $2.5 million and that the fraud was committed by "sophisticated means," agreed with the prosecution's calculation of 25 points on the sentencing matrix. Because Bolt's previous convictions were more than 15 years ago, they were not considered in arriving at the guideline sentencing range of 57 to 71 months.
Under the terms of the plea deal, prosecutor Hines could ask the judge for no more than the high end of the guideline range. Miller argued for the low end because the value of Bolt's fraud barely reached the $2.5 million threshold used to calculate the guideline range.
But federal judges have the authority to "depart" from the guidelines under certain circumstances, including when the guidelines don't adequately reflect the defendant's criminal history and when necessary to protect the public from future crimes. And that's what Brooks did: He recalculated the sentencing range as 100 to 125 months and then sentenced Bolt to the low end of the new range.
"The court is very well persuaded that there's a high likelihood that Mr. Bolt will recidivate," he said.
When he gets out, Bolt is forbidden to engage in any work that involves receiving money from customers or investors. And Brooks specifically ordered him not to try to claim any unclaimed property.
Bolt was led from the courtroom by federal marshals. Asked afterward if his client would appeal the sentence, Miller said, "I won't be surprised."