A federal judge in Kansas City on Friday sentenced Teresa Brown of Texas to 18 years in prison for her role in the Petro America Corp. stock scheme.
By MARK DAVIS
The Kansas City Star
Brown’s sentencing in U.S. District Court in Kansas City capped a week in which punishment was handed out to three key players in the scheme targeted by prosecutors.
On Tuesday, Petro America founder Isreal Owen Hawkins Jr., 58, of Kansas City, Kan., was sentenced to 30 years. On Wednesday, Johnny Heurung, 59, a Minnesotan who pitched Petro shares on weekly conference calls, was sentenced to 18 years.
All told, prosecutors said, 12,000 people spent more than $10 million on Petro shares, though the company was essentially fake. Backers had claimed ownership in gold mines, oil fields and businesses worth $284 billion.
Many of the victims were unsophisticated as investors, poor and attracted by the scheme’s religiously cloaked pitch.
Prosecutors characterized Brown, 55, as the person who sold the most shares of the Kansas City-based company by relying on her experience with multilevel marketing techniques and a group of “team leaders” to help sell.
“In a lot of ways, she was more organized and persuasive than anybody else and sold more shares,” said Dan Nelson, an assistant U.S. attorney. “Multilevel marketing was the gasoline that powered the whole thing.”
At the trial this spring, one witness dubbed Brown the “communications highway” in the scheme.
Brown had gained prosecutors’ attention in part because much of the money flowing in from investors came to her businesses, including one called Windsong Ventures, which took in $3 million.
Prosecutors said a Petro investor helped lead the investigation to Windsong, and its records showed how the scheme that had taken root through ministers and churches in Kansas City, Kan., “just exploded” across the nation.
Prosecutors also spelled out how Brown spent Petro shareholders’ money lavishly on herself: $90,270 on jewelry, $12,839 on handbags and luggage, $7,500 on beauty products. They contrasted the spending with Brown’s modest double-wide trailer home and lack of employment since 1987.
U.S. District Judge Brian C. Wimes noted Brown’s spending as well as her important role in making the scheme work.
“You had lists, you had money coming in, you had emails. Pull you out of that equation and it would have an impact,” Wimes told her at the sentencing.
Willie J. Epps Jr., Brown’s attorney, had argued for a five-year sentence, partly based on Brown’s service in the Army and lack of any criminal record.
Wimes said he recognized both of those circumstances. Prosecutors had asked for a 25-year sentence. Brown also was ordered to pay more than $10.2 million in restitution.
Brown, in brief remarks before the sentence was pronounced, told Wimes she had believed what she was doing was legal.
“I don’t know how, but God’s going to help me make sure this will be made right,” Brown said.
Also on Friday, Curtis White of Grandview was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay $42,250 in restitution in the case.
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