A Lawrenceville man pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to helping Georgia prison inmate Arthur Lee Cofield Jr. pull off his theft of $11 million from inside the state’s highest-security correctional facility.
Eldridge Bennett, 65, pleaded guilty to a single count of money laundering and faces three years in prison for assisting Cofield in the elaborate scheme, in which the $11 million was siphoned from a billionaire’s Charles Schwab account and then used to purchase more than 6,000 gold coins.
Bennett’s plea in front of U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones came three weeks after Cofield pleaded guilty in the same courtroom to conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft, in effect admitting that he masterminded the scam widely viewed as the biggest ever executed from inside an American prison.
The details of the case, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year, have created world-wide interest because Cofield was able to rip off one of the country’s wealthiest men — movie producer Sidney Kimmel — using cell phones smuggled inside the Special Management Unit, supposedly the most secure facility operated by the Georgia Department of Corrections.
The 95-year-old Kimmel is chairman and CEO of Los Angeles-based Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, maker of such films as “Hell or High Water,” “Moneyball” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” A well-known philanthropist, he entered the movie business after selling the apparel company he founded, Jones New York, for $2.2 billion in 2014.
Cofield, 31, was moved to the Special Management from Georgia State Prison in 2018 after prosecutors in Fulton County charged him with attempted murder for ordering a shooting that left an Atlanta man paralyzed from the waist down. Federal authorities have indicated that Cofield also stole from other wealthy individuals while inside the Butts County facility but have not provided details.
A 2020 indictment charged Cofield, Bennett and Bennett’s 27-year-old daughter, Eliayah, with stealing the $11 million from Kimmel’s Charles Schwab account and then converting the money into 6,106 American Eagle one-ounce gold coins.
Cofield’s scheme required flying the coins to Atlanta via private plane from Idaho, where they were purchased, and converting a portion to cash so he — using the alias “Archie Lee” — could buy a $4.4 million house that was then under construction in Buckhead.
According to court records, federal authorities determined that the elder Bennett, using fake identification, met the plane at Signature Airport and took possession of the gold coins. He then brought multiple duffel bags stuffed with $3.7 million to an Alpharetta bank to complete the purchase of the Buckhead house, the authorities said.
Bennett, who said he turns 66 on Saturday, had been charged with five counts of money laundering, but in an agreement with prosecutors he admitted to one charge, with the others dismissed.
A slim, balding man with a white beard and black glasses, Bennett said he had completed one year of college when he appeared before Jones Friday.
Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP
Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP
When asked to describe what he’d done, he told the judge: “I walked into the bank and deposited $3,700,508.”
Bennett said Cofield provided the money and told him it came from savings. “Basically, he was saying it was the money he had put away from trading coins,” he said.
But Bennett subsequently acknowledged that he knew the funds in fact came from criminal activity. “I take full responsibility,” he said.
At the hearing, federal prosecutor Samir Kaushal said the money laundering charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but that the government is recommending a three-year sentence. The plea agreement also calls for restitution of the $11 million, the prosecutor said.
Bennett, who has been free on $10,000 bond since the indictment in 2020, is set to be sentenced Sept. 25. The charges against his daughter are still pending.
Cofield is due to be sentenced July 26. As part of his plea, a sentence of 151 months has been recommended. On top of that, he still faces attempted murder charge in Fulton County.
Cofield was nearing the end of a 14-year prison sentence for robbing a Douglasville bank as a teenager when federal authorities uncovered the $11 million scam. He was released by the GDC in October 2021 and immediately taken into federal custody, where he remains.