It took more than 10 years for a Spokane lawyer to face charges that he stole from a client to fund a failed resort development on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Under a sentence imposed today, it will take him just as long to repay even a fraction of what he owes his victims.
Claude K. Irwin, the fugitive arrested in an international ruse arranged by federal agents in January, left the Spokane County Jail tonight after pleading guilty to first-degree theft that afternoon in Spokane County Superior Court.
He was credited for about five months already served in jail – about two weeks of which was spent in Los Angeles County after his arrest in Mexico.
“I just want to apologize for this entire situation,” Irwin, 62, said in court. “I was under a great deal of stress, which is not an excuse, but it affected my judgment considerably, and I’m sorry.”
Irwin admitted to stealing money from the estate of Mary Rock, who died in 1992, and invested it in a multimillion-dollar, 390-acre real estate development, Powderhorn Ridge Ranch, near Harrison, Idaho.
He was given a year of probation and ordered to pay $173,592 in restitution – the amount awarded to Rock’s estate in a civil judgment about 10 years ago. Irwin was disbarred in 1998 over the theft, which investigators at the time believed totaled more than $230,000. He hadn’t been seen in Spokane since 1997.
Judge Annette Plese ordered Irwin to pay $50 a month, an amount his attorney said was a challenge for a man with no income “and no marketable skills.”
“He does want to pay back the restitution; the fact is right now he can’t do it,” Gerald Smith said.
Prosecutors filed a notice of intent to seek aggravating circumstances, which, had a jury agreed, could have sent Irwin to prison for as many as 10 years. But the length of time that’s passed since the crime made it difficult for both sides to find witnesses and records, Smith said, which led to the plea deal. Irwin’s lack of a criminal history meant he qualified for a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail.
“He was charged with first-degree theft; he pleaded to first-degree theft and the court ordered restitution. There’s not much more we can ask for,” said Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Jennison.
Friends of Irwin’s attended the sentencing but declined comment afterward. He plans to visit family in Montana but live in Spokane County and look for work.
Plese emphasized the need for Irwin to be on probation, saying “ripping people off and taking off” doesn’t do the legal profession any favors.
U.S marshals spent “considerable” time and money brings Irwin to justice, she noted.
“I have a feeling they’ll do it again if you disappear again,” Plese said.
Irwin resurfaced in 2000 on a website under the name Koyote Karlos but disappeared again when contacted by a reporter.
Then in late 2009, a tipster told federal agents Irwin was working as a travel guide in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, under the name Miles Becker.
U.S Marshal Bob Doty, already working in Mexico for a month, posed as a tourist and persuaded Irwin to travel to Mexico City to lead a tour. Irwin was detained in Mexico City, then flown to Los Angeles with Doty, where he was arrested Jan. 27.
Under the restitution, the money Irwin repays will go directly to Rock’s beneficiaries, two small colleges and a ministry.
Irwin’s income will be reexamined periodically to see if his $50 monthly payments can increase.
Still unresolved are unpaid civil judgments awarded to investors over the years.
Spokane lawyer David Miller, whom Irwin fired in 1997 after he questioned Irwin’s work on Rock’s estate, said Irwin’s theft conviction doesn’t reflect the gravity of his scheme.
“There are a lot of victims involved,” Miller said. “Mary Rock gets paid and none of these other people do?”