updated 7/13/2007 11:47:33 PM ET 2007-07-14T03:47:33

A couple convicted of bilking more than 1,300 people out of more than $31 million in what prosecutors called a pyramid scheme were sentenced Friday to the maximum prison terms they could receive.

Howard Welsh, a 63-year-old British citizen, must serve 20 years for wire and mail fraud and conspiracy, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith ruled.

Lee Hope Thrasher, his 53-year-old girlfriend and a former crime victims’ advocate in Virginia Beach, must serve 15 years on similar charges.

The judge also ordered them to pay restitution upon their release.

According to court records, the couple held seminars around the country selling financial plans called “corporation soles,” a type of tax-free investment usually reserved for churches.

There was a $1,500 fee to join the seminar and participants were invited to invest as much as they could.

In less than four years, the couple took in $43 million and made about $6.5 million in payments to some investors, according to prosecutors.

In 2002, the couple wired $31 million to banks overseas and fled the country, hopscotching around the world and e-mailing investors with assurances their money was safe.

Since the couple’s arrest in England three years ago, federal agencies have searched for the money, but have recovered only about $3 million.

Welsh told authorities that the money is stored in a government warehouse in Ghana, a West African nation near Nigeria, according to court papers filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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