Flagler Beach Pastor Who Defrauded Church Members of Hundreds of Thousands Blames Others As He’s Sentenced to 7.5 Years
FlaglerLive | March 29, 2017
On Jan. 26, a jury in Flagler County found Wesley Brown guilty on nearly two dozen charges of theft, fraud and other swindles of investors he’d met through the Flagler Beach church where he was a pastor, counselor and Bible study leader for several years.
Brown pocketed close to half a million dollars from $1.2 million investors had entrusted him with, the prosecution said, at times taking a check from a would-be investor, depositing it, and immediately making withdrawals of several hundred dollars and treating himself to restaurants and retail outlets. “$474,000 was used to enrich the defendant and his wife and their lifestyle,” Assistant State Attorney Tim Pribisco said, outlining “the depth of the lies, the depth of this scheme” to defraud the very people who’d entrusted money and soul to him. The frauds involved many people in different states, including about six church members at the former Calvary Chapel in Flagler Beach between 2010 and 2012. (See the charging summary here.)
Today, after a three-hour sentencing hearing that at times replayed the trial—with Brown claiming innocence and remorse in the same sentence when not shifting blame or pleading self-pity about his health, the prosecution portraying him as a fraud even in his remorse—Circuit Judge Dennis Craig sentenced Brown to seven and a half years in prison and 22 and a half years on probation.
Brown is 54. Assuming good conduct, he can get out of prison when he’s 60, after serving four-fifth of his sentence, though he’s likely to spend the rest of his life on probation. The only way he can end probation early is by paying the several hundred thousand dollars he owes in restitution to the victims he had formerly deceived with his ministry.
“So if you win the lottery I suppose you could win early termination,” an unusually wry Craig told the mostly stone-faced Brown at the end of the hearing, though Brown could consider himself very lucky.
Brown had faced a mandatory minimum of just over three years and to up to 100 years in prison and was, in fact, sentenced to 77 years on 15 counts (several additional guilty counts were dismissed over a double-jeopardy issue). But Craig ruled that he would serve each term concurrently rather than consecutively. Brown’s attorney, Philip Bonamo, and Brown himself had pleaded for a probation-only sentence.
“What the court would have liked to have seen was the acceptance of some responsibilities for the actions of Mr. Brown,” the judge said.
Brown addressed the court on his own behalf in what turned into a convoluted attempt to exonerate himself through a lecture on finance, on other people’s guilt and through various denigrations of Pribisco, who stood a few feet to his left. The heart of Brown’s defense was that he never defrauded anyone, but that a brokerage firm tied to his investment company collapsed. The judge would later point out that had it not been for that collapse, Brown’s own crimes would not have been revealed, and he might have continued defrauding victims. The judge called the brokerage firm’s collapse “an irony,” given the outcome.
Four other people spoke on Brown’s behalf, including his wife, Deborah Cippoletti, who said it was “a joy and a privilege to be called his wife” and that she would not have stayed with him had he been a thief. “I am no Stockholm Syndrome victim,” she said. (“The court is OK with your blind or almost blind faith in Mr. Brown but the evidence in the case wouldn’t support that,” Craig told her.)
As is usually the case at sentencing hearings attended by the defendant’s friends and family, Brown’s character witnesses emphasized his faith in God, his health problems—he said he has Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver—his compassion and his military service. But even stories of his military service seemed padded for effect. “He was getting shot at, fighting and jumping out of jets, OK, he had missions that were so secretive, he had to take his dog tags off,” his wife claimed to the court, “and honest to God if he died in these missions, his mother would have been told it was an accident, that’s how secret those missions were, this was during the Reagan administration, and if any of you were familiar with Ronald Reagan’s tactics, he went in, and he took care of business, and Wes was part of that.”
Brown claimed to have taken part in the invasion of Grenada, a Reagan administration operation against the tiny Caribbean island largely ridiculed at the time as a diversion from the mass killing of 251 U.S. Marines in Beirut two days before the invasion (Marines Reagan had left largely undefended on the outskirts of the war-torn city). Brown also claimed to have been deployed to the Susan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in 1982, though there was no such deployment. The only involvement of the 82nd Airborne in the proximity of Sudanese forces in 1982 was as part of the biannual “Bright Star” joint exercise with the Egyptian military, which included some Sudanese forces. It was not a deployment to a war zone.
It was left up to the prosecutor later to point out that Brown had been demoted from Sergeant to private after violating rules about carrying firearms at a military base in North Carolina. He was fined and reprimanded. “It was a very small, misdemeanor thing,” Brown said.
The stories had their effect, however: the judge said Brown’s military service was considered in his weighing of the sentence, though he’d also heard the words of some of those Brown had hurt.
“This is what gives Christians in general an undeserved black mark,” went the words of one victim as read by the prosecutor from a letter to the judge. “We trusted in good faith a friend, fellow Christian and pastor, no less. I can’t help but feeling deceived when I think of my wife battling cancer at the time this happened, and when Wes had his arm around me praying while his other hand was in my pocket. This was also the time when she could not work because of her illness and I had my hours cut and I had to travel several offices when possible to try to make these work hours. My wife wanted nothing more than for me to retire from a job at which she saw me come home every night frustrated, exhausted and abused. The money we lost was originally intended to pay down our mortgage so that I could retire with less debt. Instead we were persuaded to invest in Maverick International with the speculation of a reasonable return to help in retirement.”Six Brown supporters sat on one side of the courtroom and 12 of those who wanted to see him punished, among them some of his victims, sat on the other side. A bailiff at one point warned Brown’s supporters that if any of them continued to blurt out reactions or comments during the hearing, as some repeatedly did, they’d be thrown out of the building—“not the courtroom, the building,” the bailiff specified.
The judge remarked about the divide in front of him: “I see a split between two sides,” Craig said, “and of course it is because of Mr. Brown’s conduct in the case that basically pits one side against the other, and it would be my hope that that doesn’t linger or cause any issues between the people that I see there.”
Craig and the audience also witnessed Brown lying again explicitly during the hearing when the prosecutor asked him if he had been an officer–the president—of Maverick International, the investment firm used in the scheme. Brown denied being the president. The prosecutor handed him a document showing Brown’s signature and his title: “President.”
“For some reason this is a misprint,” Brown protested. “It’s an inaccurate, one-time form.”
“I never took a dime from anybody,” he continued, claiming his actions had been misinterpreted at trial.
After Brown had spoken of his remorse, Pribisco ridiculed him. “The court should not consider the purported remorse of the defendant when he spent his entire statement on slandering those who testified against him, personally attacking the assistant state attorney, maintaining his innocence,” Pribisco said. “So I don’t think we get to legally considering remorse when you spend your entire statement contesting the facts of the case.”
Just before sentencing Craig spoke at length to explain the sentence he was about to hand down, providing the audience and the two sides a point-by-point deconstruction of how he got to his decision. He described all those involved, whether those defending Brown or those hurt by him, as “well-meaning,” and that no one, Brown included, is black and white. “A person’s life is not either on one side or the other side,” Craig said. “I want to note that I did see that there was a lot of good on Mr. Brown’s side.”
But, Craig then said, “make no mistake the court finds that there was sufficient and plentiful evidence to support the verdicts that the jury came back with.” And he pointed out that Brown took advantage of church members with “a crime that goes to the integrity of our financial system.”
“I want to note that he is trying to shift a large amount of the responsibility for the losses on the victims’ side, effectively shifting the responsibility over to PFG,” Craig concluded, referring to the brokerage firm Brown claimed was at fault. “What the court would have liked to have seen was the acceptance of some responsibilities for the actions of Mr. Brown, which also led to the losses by the victims.”
The judge’s remark about the integrity of the financial system was notable. But so was the Brown’s case’s glaring contrast with a larger context. After all the innumerable, documented and billion-dollar frauds perpetrated at the expense of millions leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent near-collapse of the economy, only one top banker went to jail, while federal white-collar prosecutions were cut nearly in half in the three years after the crisis, compared to the booming 1990s.
The judge left that irony in Brown’s sentencing unspoken.