Bagman sentenced for helping Georgia inmate steal millions behind bars

Money stolen from billionaire’s account used to buy Buckhead house for prisoner’s girlfriend
Aerial photograph shows a house in Buckhead, while it was still under construction. A Georgia prison inmate used millions of dollars stolen from the account of a billionaire movie mogul to buy the house, with a Lawrenceville man laundering the money for the purchase. Eldridge Bennett brought duffel bags stuffed with $3.7 million in cash to complete the purchase. Tuesday, August 2, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Aerial photograph shows a house in Buckhead, while it was still under construction. A Georgia prison inmate used millions of dollars stolen from the account of a billionaire movie mogul to buy the house, with a Lawrenceville man laundering the money for the purchase. Eldridge Bennett brought duffel bags stuffed with $3.7 million in cash to complete the purchase. Tuesday, August 2, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

A Gwinnett County man was sentenced to four years in federal prison Monday for helping Georgia prisoner Arthur Lee Cofield Jr. pull off his scheme to steal $11 million from a California billionaire.

The sentence for Eldridge Bennett, 66, is the first to stem from the brazen crime in which Cofield stole from a Charles Schwab account belonging to movie producer Sidney Kimmel, turned the money into gold coins and used a portion to buy a Buckhead mansion —all from inside the Georgia Department of Corrections’ Special Management Unit, considered to be the GDC’s most secure facility.

Bennett, a long-time resident of Lawrenceville, pleaded guilty in April to a single count of money laundering, which brings a maximum sentence of 10 years. The amount he laundered was $3.7 million, which was balance owed on the Buckhead house at closing.

His attorney, Dwight Thomas, sought probation, noting Bennett’s age, minimal criminal record and military service. But U.S District Judge Steve C. Jones strongly disagreed.

“This is not a probation case,” he said, noting Bennett’s elaborate role in helping Cofield carry out the scheme.

The sentence also requires Bennett to pay $11 million in restitution.

Court filings by the government show that Bennett picked up the gold coins — flown by private plane to Atlanta after they’d been purchased from an Idaho company — and then brought duffel bags stuffed with cash to the closing at an Alpharetta bank when the Buckhead house was purchased for $4.4 million.

The scheme unraveled not long after Cofield purchased the house in August 2020 when federal authorities were able to extract data from the contraband cellphone he had been using.

Cofield, 32, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft and is due to be sentenced on Jan. 5. He has been in federal custody since completing a14-year state sentence for a 2007 bank robbery in Douglasville.

Bennett’s daughter, Eliayah, 28 , also was involved in the scheme, helping Cofield in the purchase of the house. She has pleaded guilty to concealing wire fraud. She is scheduled for sentencing on Jan. 19.

Cofield’s case, first detailed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year, has drawn national attention, showing how even an inmate in Georgia’s most secure prison could break the law — and break it in a sensational way.

Cofield was moved to the Special Management Unit in Butts County, where the GDC houses its most problematic prisoners, in 2018 after he was alleged to have arranged the shooting of an Atlanta man from inside Georgia State Prison. He still faces charges in Fulton County that include attempted murder in that case.

Speaking at Monday’s hearing, Bennett apologized for “bad judgment” and said he never realized he was committing the crime of money laundering.

“To put it all in a nutshell, I was ignorant to the charge of money laundering,” he said. “I thought I was just a courier. … I just made a choice. At my age, I should have known better.”

Responding, Jones expressed incredulity that Bennett didn’t see a problem with picking up gold and converting it to cash for someone in prison.

Portrait dedication of U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones - 10/5/18. Photo credit: University of Georgia School of Law

Credit: University of Georgia

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Credit: University of Georgia

Replied Bennett: “One of the stupidest things I ever did.”

Neither Bennett nor his attorney would comment on the sentence.

Federal prosecutor Samir Kaushal told Jones that the government recommended a prison sentence of 51 months.

Kaushal noted that Bennett was following instructions from Cofield, whom he described as “a very mercurial and complex leader of this conspiracy.” But he also noted that Bennett used a fake driver’s license when he retrieved the gold coins and had to realize the suspicious nature of bringing bags of cash to a bank closing.

Kaushal acknowledged that Bennett, at 66 and with no real criminal record, didn’t need a stiff sentence to deter him from further crimes. But he said it was important to use the sentencing as a “general deterrent” to those tempted to aid the growing number of prisoners using contraband cellphones to scam the public.

“This is not just delivering a pizza,” he said. “It’s a real crime.”

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