An 81-year-old man was sentenced to 28 years in prison Friday in an investment scam that prosecutors say seeped across half the country and bilked 1,800 people, many of them elderly, of about $190 million.
John Heath, who was convicted last month alongside his son Daniel Heath and another man, also was ordered to pay $117 million in restitution to the clients who invested directly through him.
He dabbed at his eyes during the hearing and left court in a wheelchair.
Jurors found the three guilty of running a Ponzi scheme that funneled money from new investors to pay off people who had already pumped in cash. John Heath was convicted on 52 counts including grand theft, selling false securities and theft from the elderly.
About 100 letters from victims were sent to the Riverside County Superior Court, and about a dozen of them were read to Judge Ronald Taylor, said Ingrid Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. The notes talked about how the victims' lives had been affected after learning their investments with Daniel W. Heath & Associates had been lost.
Some of Heath's adult children spoke at the hearing, pleading for leniency for their father. Heath's attorney, Chad Firetag, asked the judge for probation, citing his client's age and failing health. Firetag has said the elder Heath wasn't aware of the scam and had enough trust in his son that he plowed his own commissions back into the investments.
Prosecutors said the company ran a scam dating back to the early 1990s that promised clients their money would go into fixed investments with little or no risk. Instead, it went to money-losing real estate and small business projects controlled by the company that had offices across Southern California.
Investors have had some money returned, but a court-appointed receiver said they will get only about 22 cents on every dollar.
Company president Daniel W. Heath, 51, was convicted of nearly 400 counts and could face up to 100 years in prison. A former business associate, Denis O'Brien, 53, could face up to 30 years in prison. Both men are to be sentenced in the coming weeks.
Another business associate, Larre Schlarmann, is serving a 15-year prison term after pleading guilty in 2005 to money laundering and fraud for his involvement in the scheme.