X

‘Dead’ banker sentenced to prison

While saying he accepted responsibility for deceiving clients, Aubrey Lee Price spent much of his speech in federal court Tuesday blaming insiders of the bank he bought for allegedly duping him about the institution’s poor condition.
While saying he accepted responsibility for deceiving clients, Aubrey Lee Price spent much of his speech in federal court Tuesday blaming insiders of the bank he bought for allegedly duping him about the institution’s poor condition.

THE STORY SO FAR

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on Aubrey Lee Price nearly four years ago, when Price led an investor group to save the troubled Montgomery Bank & Trust. When Price vanished in 2012, the AJC wrote a series of stories about his disappearance and the havoc left in his wake. The AJC was there again when Price reappeared on New Year’s Eve. AJC reporters have reviewed court filings, property records and other documents and interviewed investors and others affected. Read Aubrey Lee Price’s confession letter and get the story of his long, strange journey from being declared dead to his capture and guilty plea. It’s all on our premium site, MyAJC.com.

The saga of Aubrey Lee Price

December 2010: An investment group affiliated with Aubrey Lee Price takes a majority stake in troubled Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey.

June 2012: Price disappears. His family and some business associates receive letters saying he was responsible for defrauding clients, and authorities say Price informed relatives he planned to jump off a Florida ferry to end his life. A note is found, bearing Price’s name but not his signature, confessing to concealing losses.

July 2012: Regulators shut down Montgomery Bank and Price is indicted in Savannah on a federal bank fraud charge. Regulators freeze his assets. Former clients file complaints for damages from an Atlanta firm where Price once worked. The FBI says it is enlisting the help of counterparts in South America and with Interpol to find Price.

Dec. 31, 2012: A Florida judge declares Price dead, presuming he’d drowned at sea.

January 2013: Justice officials, who believe Price is still alive, announce a separate indictment in New York charging Price with securities and wire fraud. It alleges Price unsuccessfully invested about $40 million from 115 investors, losing the money and trying to cover up the losses with fake account statements.

Feb. 2013: The FBI said all vehicles and watercraft believed to belong to Price had been accounted for, except a 17-foot Sea Ray fiberglass boat.

Dec. 31, 2013: Glynn County sheriff’s deputies pulled over a pickup Price was driving near Brunswick. Authorities said they found multiple IDs and later determined Price’s real identity.

June 5, 2014: Price pleades guilty to three fraud charges.

Tuesday: Price is sentenced to federal prison.

The charges

Price ultimately faced 17 counts related to defrauding his bank and clients. He pleaded guilty in June to to one count each of securities fraud, wire fraud and bank fraud. Other charges were dropped, including 14 counts of bank fraud and a Florida indictment related to the unnecessary search for his body.

What they said…

“There really isn’t any justice, there isn’t any closure. My life is in shambles. I’m glad he’s not out there able to do it to someone else. You don’t feel justice, you don’t feel closure because I’m still struggling every day, so I still have to think about him at the beginning of every month when you can’t get everything to come together.”

— Mary Jo Peters, 65, a St. Simons Island resident and former client of Aubrey Lee Price, reacting to the sentence.

“We are not angry at Lee, nor are we bitter. We forgave him the day we found out (about the fraud).”

— Sherry Thomason, 64, a former Price client, who gave a victim impact statement in court.

“What the court saw in fully display is the arrogance and pride that got (Price) in trouble.”

— Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Rafferty said of Price’s comments in court.

“I offer my most sincere and completely inadequate apologies to my family, my clients and to law enforcement.”

— Aubrey Lee Price, who also vowed to help his investors recoup their money.

“Many people ask me why I have decided to stay with Lee after all that has occurred. To borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, The Vow, ‘I choose to stay with him for all the things that he did right and not leave him for the one thing he did wrong.’”

— Rebekah Price, Price’s wife, in a letter to the court asking for leniency in her husband’s sentencing.

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.

UPDATE: Behind the scenes at Price's sentencing

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.”