STATESBORO — Aubrey Lee Price will spend the next 30 years in federal prison for orchestrating a fraud that brought down a South Georgia bank and cheated his clients out of millions before he faked his own death and disappeared.
The 48-year-old former financial adviser and bank director was sentenced Tuesday to a combined 70 years — for one charge each of bank fraud, securities fraud and wire fraud — but the sentences will be served concurrently.
Tuesday’s court hearing put an end to the saga that grabbed international headlines with its myriad turns.
A former preacher, Price told Judge B. Avant Edenfield that his wife warned him when he began a career as an investment adviser that “my ambition would lead me on a path to hell.”
“It was wrong; it was evil; it was fraud,” Price said of his actions.
Still, Price, who spoke in court for about 40 minutes prior to his sentencing, showed little contrition. While saying he accepted responsiblity for deceiving clients, he spent much of his speech blaming insiders of the bank he bought for allegedly duping him about the institution’s poor condition.
“There was a lot of fraud committed against us,” he said, an accusation that bank insiders have denied.
With short hair and stubble, and thinner than when he was arrested, Price addressed the judge with his hands behind his back, his left hand holding his right wrist until his hand turned red.
He did not look at family or his victims, except when one called his name from the stand as she testified to the harm he had caused her.
He did not apologize until the end of his remarks Tuesday, saying then that his words were “most sincere and completely inadequate.”
Price pleaded guilty in June to effectively running a Ponzi scheme that decimated his clients and destroyed Montgomery Bank & Trust, a bank in the tiny town of Ailey, that he and a group of investors had ostensibly tried to save. Instead, he was accused of embezzling more than $21 million from the institution, in an attempt to cover massive losses within the bank.
Price and his investors bought a controlling stake in Montgomery Bank in late 2010. He disappeared and wrote suicide notes confessing to defrauding clients and the bank.
Price, who staged his death in 2012 and spent 18 months on the lam, was arrested in a Brunswick traffic stop last New Year’s Eve.
Mary Jo Peters, the former investor who briefly caught Price’s attention from the stand when she called his actions “conscious, deliberate and despicable,” said Price had robbed her of her savings, an amount she didn’t disclose. She compared his effect on her life to being afflicted with an incurable disease.
“My life is forever changed, and it will not get better.”
Peters considered Price a friend, she said, and his disregard for her was the “ultimate betrayal.”
Not all the people Price hurt are still angry. In testimony and letters to the court, friends, family and former clients asked Edenfield to be lenient on Price. Sherry Thomason, an investor, said she does not believe Price set out to “swindle” her, and has forgiven him.
Price’s parents, sons, wife and in-laws all wrote letters to the judge, saying they believed Price was a good, God-fearing man who made a mistake. They describe him buying dinners for soldiers, driving them to school, teaching them to play music and tennis and giving gifts — including a car — to friends in need.
“I do not believe my dad is the same person he was in June of 2012,” son Nathan Price wrote in a letter to the court. “In those days, my dad was depressed and stressed beyond measure, and made a rash decision. I whole-heartedly believe my dad has learned from his mistakes and is committed to helping his former clients receive restitution.”
Edenfield, the judge, said he had read the letters. He called them “absolutely sad” and said that Price received plenty of mercy from prosecutors, who dropped more than a dozen charges against him in exchange for his guilty plea.
In making the deal, prosecutors considered that Price is helping them in other criminal cases. He has also cooperated with a court-ordered receiver of his businesses, who is trying to recoup some of the money Price lost.
The court will try to determine Price’s full restitution early next year, but he is expected to owe at least $45.9 million. Price, who’s written a draft memoir and said in a magazine interview he has been approached by Hollywood, must turn over any film or book proceeds to his victims, the judge said.
Even in his apology Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Rafferty said, Price had been disingenuous. Though he blamed the collapse of Montgomery Bank on bad information from bank insiders, Rafferty said Price’s misdeeds with his clients’ money started well before he invested in the bank.
Price had plenty of opportunities to stop the fraud before the bank, and his scheme, unraveled.
“It’s ego and arrogance that drove Mr. Price,” Rafferty said.
The receiver has long said Price did not steal the money, only lost it in trading designed to win back heavy losses among his clients and later the bank.
Rafferty said, “Whatever the motivation for his crimes, the outcome is the same.”
Rafferty said Tuesday that Price laid the groundwork for his disappearance before he left, buying a condo and a truck, and creating a bank account in another name. He sent letters in June 2012 to family and friends describing his intent to jump from a ferry and was seen boarding one in Key West, Fla., shortly after he left home. His wife, Rebekah, had a court declare him dead six months after he vanished.
In reality, Price was alive. He was connected to a marijuana-grow operation near Ocala, Fla., and reportedly said he worked for drug dealers in Latin America. He admitted to using drugs while on the run. When he was arrested after a routine traffic stop, he was found with multiple IDs in other names.
After the sentencing, Peters said she was pleased the judge did not show leniency.
“There really isn’t any justice, there isn’t any closure,” she said. “My life is in shambles.”