CHICAGO — John Rogers of North Little Rock was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years in prison by a Chicago federal judge who said the former sports memorabilia dealer and photo archivist was a threat to the public.
"Society needs to be protected from you," U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin said after Rogers asked for a lenient sentence — after first admitting that he would lie in order to get his way.
Rogers, 44, had pleaded guilty in March to a single count of wire fraud. He admitted passing off phony sports memorabilia and other misdeeds. In the federal justice system, convicted criminals typically serve 85 to 90 percent of the prison time ordered.
Durkin also sentenced Rogers to three years probation when he gets out of prison.
"Mr. Rogers needs to be under supervised release for as long as possible," Durkin said. "Three years is the most allowed under the law."
The judge said he had never before seen a defendant blow up a plea deal by continuing to commit crimes while awaiting sentence. Despite an FBI raid, the loss of his business and the ruin of his marriage, Rogers continued dealing in fraud.
"If that wake-up call didn't get your attention, then no sentence I give you will unless it is significant," Durkin said.
After handing down the sentence, the judge said the government's sentencing recommendation of nearly eight years under the plea deal was inadequate.
Durkin said he would have sentenced Rogers to more time, even before Rogers broke the agreement. In explaining his position, the judge cited the volume of frauds Rogers committed over more than a decade that began with fake sports memorabilia and extended into his photo archive business where he deployed phony contracts, forged signatures and bogus appraisals.
Rogers was ordered to pay restitution of $23,552,370, a figure based on actual out-of-pocket losses by 26 known victims. The precise dollar total was painstakingly calculated, according to assistant U.S. attorney Derek Owens.
"Restitution is mandatory," Judge Durkin said. "It's going to be around his neck for the rest of his life."
The judge denied Rogers' request that he be able to self-report to federal prison. Instead, he was returned to federal custody. He has been incarcerated in Chicago since Nov. 20, when his bond was revoked after prosecutors presented evidence of continued criminal behavior.
The judge did agree to recommend that Rogers be assigned to the federal prison camp at Millington, Tennessee, near Memphis.
Before his sentence was imposed, Rogers spoke to the court from the defense table. Dressed in a loose-fitting prison-orange jumpsuit and matching sneakers and wearing chained ankle cuffs, he delivered a meandering soliloquy that lasted 43 minutes.
His rambling oration, addressed to his namesake son in attendance as well as the court, veered from excuses for why he did the bad things he did to blunt admissions of guilt.
One of his most candid remarks concerned his mindset: "I thought we could outsmart them," he said, without explaining who "we" was. "I'm going to win at all costs even if I have to lie."
Rogers took jabs at the news media in general and an unspecified reporter in particular for inaccuracies in covering his fall, but later said 99 percent of what was written about him was true.
He alluded to murky domestic problems in his family in which he wanted to intercede but couldn't because of his legal problems.
Rogers apologized to his son for that and for not attending more of his baseball games, an absence he attributed to not be seen in public while he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
He complained about not receiving sympathetic medical treatment during the past 30 days and having to go cold turkey from cocaine during four days of detox after his bond was revoked and he was ordered to prison last month.
Rogers brought up specific incidents of criminal conduct without explaining why fraud became a normal part of his business conduct or when he first began breaking the law.
He wove in admissions such as "I did it," "it's my fault" and "I was too weak for myself and everyone" as he described his crimes and shortcomings.
Rogers blamed his undercover work for the FBI as the final blow that ended his marriage, which was put on the rocks by his earlier adulterous behavior.
Rogers said he couldn't keep his promise to always answer his cellphone while wearing a wire for the feds. Rogers said he was forbidden to tell his former wife, Angelica, the reason he couldn't answer her calls.
"It was my marriage versus keeping my plea deal," Rogers said. "It was a gamble that I lost. It was my biggest loss."
He also took shots at two of his wealthiest victims: Larry Wilson, chairman, president and CEO of Jacksonville's First Arkansas Bank & Trust, which was defrauded into financing Rogers; and William "Mac" Hogan, his biggest single investor. At a hearing last month, both had asked that Rogers be given the maximum punishment possible.
Rogers blamed Wilson and Hogan for the likelihood that his smaller victims will not recoup as much of their losses. Wilson and Hogan's supposed offense? Having a better legal position in the pecking order of victims than smaller, less sophisticated investors and clients.
"These were real people that were lied to," Owens, the prosecutor, told the court. "He lied to their faces and took their money, over and over again."
Rogers also talked of drug addiction as helping fuel his criminal activity and blocking his empathy for the people he was harming. He spoke of possible brain injury from his years playing high school and college football and alluded to his bipolar diagnosis. These alleged medical conditions were not supported by any documentation submitted to the court, according to the government.
Rogers also tried to win leniency by telling the court that he was his victims' best chance of getting restitution. The sooner he was out of prison, he said, the more time he would have to help them recoup their losses.
Rogers asked for a sentence of seven years. "I don't deserve it," he said. "I know I don't."
Durkin was unmoved. The judge said he usually doesn't see the need for additional deterrence in the case of a nonviolent, first-time offender who had reached a plea agreement and cooperated with the government.
"I see it here," Durkin said, pointing out that Rogers committed his crime over years, violated his plea agreement and engaged in even more fraud. "Society needs to be protected from you."
The judge also dismissed Rogers' excuses. "I don't believe the crimes were based on addiction or mental condition. There was no other reason but greed," he said.
Durkin read excerpts from a sampling of letters he received from victims.
Among them was Leo Bauby, whose life's savings was squandered by Rogers after talking him into a $30,000 loan in late January 2015. Rogers never delivered on a promised share in assets or any repayment.
Bauby said he learned from the FBI that Rogers spent the cash to travel with a girlfriend and on his family. Meanwhile, Bauby was contending with medical bills and his wife's ovarian cancer.
Mary Brace was counting on the sale to Rogers of her father's massive collection of sports photos to secure her retirement and preserve her dad's legacy. She received a fraction of what was owed by Rogers, and he didn't deliver on the promised digital copy of the collection either.
The judge noted one victim who marveled at the salesmanship and abilities of Rogers: "He could've made a great living for his family, if he was just honest."
"You told thousands of lies," the judge told Rogers. "You did this over years. It was calculated. It was sophisticated."
Durkin walked through his thoughts on various arguments for leniency:
- Regarding his children's suffering from his absence: "I can't care more about your children than what you did when you were committing your crimes."
- Regarding the intense social stigma his family has endured because Little Rock is a smaller city: "A $23 million fraud is notorious in Little Rock or Chicago."
- Regarding testimonials that Rogers did some good deeds in his life and was a good father: "Even a con man can be a good person."
- Regarding Rogers' professed drug addiction: "You were a voluntary addict."
"Somewhere you went off the rails," Durkin concluded.
The judge asked about the possibility that Rogers had hidden assets from creditors and law enforcement officials.
"We have searched for hidden assets but haven't found any as of yet, so we don't know," Owens said.