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Defendant says some guilty pleas stem from government
BY CARL WALWORTH
MATTOON - If the case of James Turner is a good indicator,
several of the 15 people who pleaded guilty to a role in the Omega
Trust and Trading case faced an increased sentence of 10 times or
more if they took their case to trial and lost.
Turner, one of four remaining defendants whose trial is set for June,
this week shared with the newspaper a copy of a letter from a
prosecutor outlining his options. He also wrote a two-page response
critical of the government for its tactics and "threats" to convince
people to plead guilty.
In Turner's case, prosecutors say he would probably face four to six
months at a halfway house and four months in prison if he pleads
guilty to a single count of conducting a monetary transaction with
proceeds of illegal activity. The sentence could be anywhere from 10
to 14 years if Turner is convicted at trial.
Some of the defendants who agreed they played leading roles in the
Omega program likely face substantially longer sentences than
those who had "minimal" roles. Sentencing hearings are separate
for each defendant because each person has a different background
and set of circumstances for Judge Mike McCuskey to consider.
In Turner's case, prosecutors project the sentencing range for
which he would qualify if he pleads guilty and cooperates would be
eight to 16 months.
"Should he plead guilty pursuant to the tendered plea agreement,
unless the Bureau of Prisons does something very unusual, he
spends four months in a nearby halfway house followed by four
months at home (during the World Series and NFL season)," a
letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Bruce to Turner's lawyer
says. "On the other hand, if Mr. Turner makes a high-risk gamble
by going to trial and loses, he will spend a minimum of 10 years and
probably 14 years in prison. Mr. Turner appears to be intelligent and
articulate. Therefore, I presume he will not make the foolish choice
of proceeding to trial and will want the benefits of the plea
Turner said he provided a copy of the letter to the newspaper
against the advice of his lawyer, John Gadau.
Without the benefit of the plea agreement, Turner faces an
additional charge of money laundering, loses credits for accepting
responsibility and may be found liable for additional amounts of
money in the Omega conspiracy.
Turner, of Mattoon, wrote a two-page reply, criticizing the
government for the threatening tone of its letter that he assumes is
similar to ones written to the 15 people who have pleaded guilty.
"Most of the defendants in the Omega case had no knowledge of
Omega or its illegal doings," Turner wrote. "The government says
we 'should have known.' Most of the defendants were guilty of only
obtaining a loan from someone they trusted. They were not involved
nor knew anything about the money scheming.
"The government was very selective on who they indicted," said
Turner, a former correctional officer for the Coles County Sheriff's
Department. "Not everyone who borrowed money was indicted.
Does the government have laws for some people and oversights for
others? Is this right?"
Turner noted the government's offer suggests that most of those
who plead guilty will be home in time for the football season. Those
who don't face long sentences if convicted. "What a deal, plead guilty
to something you didn't do in exchange for getting to stay home and
watch television," Turner said.
"If that's not enough pressure, the United States government was
told of my innocence from the beginning. I had no knowledge of any
illegal activity, nor do I believe most of the other defendants had
knowledge of illegal activities conducted by this 'trusted friend.'
They were scared of the United States government's legal threats.
With the stroke of a pen, the government has the power to slander
your name, freeze your personal bank account, make you lose your
job, ruin your credit, seize your property and bankrupt you before
you are found guilty or even go to trial.
"The United States government told me if I didn't plead guilty, I
would get 12 years in prison and they would add an additional
charge of 'obstruction of justice,' based on a lie of a local
Turner said he offered to repay the money he borrowed along with a
"not guilty" finding. Prosecutors declined.
"I am not guilty and will not plead guilty to something I didn't do,"
Turner said. "My heart goes out to the investors of Omega. We
invested our lives in someone we trusted. It's a shame the United
States government is so obsessed with finding the innocent guilty
instead of trying to get these investors' money back to them."
Turner asked how other people would respond when told by a
"trusted friend" that the friend's money is from investments, oil and
sale of refineries for millions of dollars.
"Everyone in Mattoon had knowledge of this person's wealth," said
Turner, apparently referring to lead defendant Clyde D. Hood. "It
wasn't a secret. This person helped a lot of people in Mattoon with
his loans. This person made the statement to people that he had
more money than his grandkids' kids could ever spend."
Turner says in the letter that elected representatives and
government officials make representations that people later find out
are incorrect. But that doesn't mean average citizens who support
those officials are guilty of an "indifference to the truth."
"I have been a believer in the Constitution of the United States and
the Bill of Rights all my life," Turner said. "I have been subjected (in
the Omega case) to legalized threats as well as the other defendants.
Without these scare tactics most of the guilty pleas of some of the
defendants wouldn't have been possible. The government promises
you prison time and uses their scare tactics and threatening
remarks, then puts you on the witness stand in front of the judge
and asks you to perjure yourself and tell the judge you weren't
promised anything or threatened in any way to get this plea. How
dishonest is that?"