Wesley Brown–pastor and financial advisor Wesley Brown, formerly of Flagler Beach, now a 15-time convicted felon–still says he’s innocent of bilking investors of nearly half a million dollars.
From the time of his arrest for embezzling funds and defrauding his own fellow-parishioners in 2014 to his trial three years later to his sentencing to seven and a half years in prison two months after that, he’s claimed innocence.
For his fate, the 58-year-old former volunteer pastor at the defunct Calvary Chapel in Flagler Beach blamed everyone else, from fellow-investors to prosecutors to a brokerage firm to colleagues to a number of people, including witnesses, who in his view didn’t know what they were talking about when they talked about how investing and securities work. Presumably, the jury didn’t know how to weigh the evidence, either.
He did so much blaming between glimmers of remorse at his sentencing that the prosecutor at the time, Tim Pribisco, told the judge: “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.” That, Pribisco said, “is not remorse. It’s self-serving.”
“A jury has spoken, and I respect that,” Brown had said at his sentencing. Apparently not anymore. Brown was back in court today, in person. This time he was blaming just one person: his former attorney, Philip Bonamo. Brown had filed a motion arguing that Bonamo was a terrible lawyer who “had lied to him and misled him numerous times during the course of the trial.” Brown argued that Bonamo “failed to call witnesses” that could have helped his case, “interfered” with his right to testify, and botched his defense.
Brown, Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis told the court today, “is just throwing innuendo and just any sort of statements against the wall hoping, anything will stick. Brown and Lewis sparred at length today, Brown clearly enjoying the sense that he was schooling Lewis on securities and investments, interrupting, contradicting, at times ridiculing Lewis’s analyses and going on long, obscure disquisitions about the the investment schemes that defraided no one.
Circuit Judge Terence Perkins didn’t buy it. After outlining his own long list of refutations of Brown’s arguments, he denied his motion for “post-conviction relief,” a legal term that means leniency. Brown will have to continue serving his seven and a half years in prison, with eligibility for early release after 77 months, or a little over six years. He’s been serving at a state prison in Lawtey, a short drive from Starke to the south and Raiford to the west, where death row inmates are put to death.
At the heart of Brown’s claim was that had the proper testimonies been offered, expert witnesses and his own included, the jury would have reached a different conclusion. Perkins rejected that argument of an “affirmative defense.” Those failures did not reasonably alter the outcome of the case, Perkins ruled. He was essentially accepting the prosecution’s argument.
“Mr. Bonamo tried to hire three to four different experts who established the securities issue here. He was unable to find one,” Lewis argued. “Mr. Bonamo ethically cannot keep shopping around so he finds one to say what his client wants. He did what he’s supposed to do, he followed through. There’s no error with his judgment.”
Brown had faced 30 charges. A jury found him guilty on 19 of them for defrauding investors, of $474,000 out of $1.2 million they’d entrusted to him to invest. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison followed by 22 years of probation.
Appearing by zoom was Brown’s lawyer, David Lamos, and, separately, Bonamo. Lewis, the judge and Brown were in the courtroom. Today’s hearing clocked in at five hours (two hours longer than his sentencing), not including breaks for lunch and a recess. At his sentencing Brown or people testifying to his character invoked enough stories to make him sound like a superhero, a saint, a martyr–a serviceman who took part in ultra-secret missions during the Reagan administration (missions that likely did not exist), but also in the more risible invasion of Grenada, a neighbor who helped those in need and took care of rescue animals, a loving husband suffering from hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
The military heroism he and his supporters spoke of did not include mention of his demotion from sergeant back to private because he didn’t follow orders. And one of the people he’d defrauded recalled how he’d trusted Brown as a fellow Christian and pastor, and how, as the man’s wife was battling cancer, “Wes had his arm around me praying while his other hand was in my pocket.”
Today the hearing was more narrowly focused. But gone was Brown’s messianic hair, and his martyr’s expression, captured in photographs at the time of his sentencing, could not be replicated with a mask on. (Masks are still required of all those present in Flagler’s courtrooms.)
“Frankly, I don’t like holding up lawyers to scorn and be aggressive about it,” Lamos said before cross-examining Bonamo, and doing just that: at one point, again prefacing his question with what by then was sounding like a well-rehearsed if disingenuous neutralizer, he asked Bonamo: “Forgive me, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on you, but here we are. You seem to be prevaricating about something that’s obviously false, like you got caught with your pants down.”
Bonamo was nonplussed. “Well, I,” he said. There was a pause. A long pause. “I don’t know how to respond to that, sir.”
Lamos later attempted flattery of the judge (“Your honor, you’re an experienced judge I almost feel like not having an argument,” he said of his closing, before going on to close at length, but in vain.