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Bank swindler accused of bilking pair of $170,000

A convicted bank swindler who boldly walked out of a federal courtroom in Spokane three years ago to avoid arrest is back in jail, accused of another scheme.

John Earl Petersen, the key figure in the collapse of a Montana bank more than a decade ago, is accused of stealing nearly $170,000 from a brother and sister in 2006 after telling them they would receive $100 million in return.

Petersen is being held without bail at the Spokane County Jail. He’s pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of wire fraud and one count of tax evasion and is to stand trial in May, U.S. District Judge Edward Shea ruled recently.

It’s the latest for an admitted con man and frequent Las Vegas gambler who had a business office in Spokane when he was arrested in 1998, accused of masterminding the $10.5 million collapse of Montana Bank of Whitefish, Mont.

Petersen, 59, admitted to bribing bank officials to allow him to cash phony checks. He served five years in prison after turning in co-conspiring bank officials. He was sent back in 2008 after investigators alleged he was misusing his elderly aunt’s money.

Petersen was arrested on the new federal indictment just as he was to be released from SeaTac federal prison on Dec. 8.

The charges allege he duped a brother and sister identified only as Jean M. and Tom B. by persuading them on 16 occasions to transfer money into his aunt’s credit union account under the guise they’d receive millions in return. The siblings live in Alaska and Alabama.

His lawyer, Bevan Maxey, did not return a phone call seeking comment. He called the allegations “fairly succinct” at a recent hearing in U.S. District Court.

Petersen also is charged in Spokane County Superior Court with nine counts of felony theft for an alleged scheme that bilked his 95-year-old aunt out of her life savings. A $25,000 warrant for his arrest was issued in April 2009.

“We’re just waiting to get him back from the feds,” said Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Patrick Johnson.

The alleged theft against his aunt occurred after Petersen gained her power of attorney, placed her in a nursing home and moved into her South Hill home. At his parole revocation hearing in 2008, federal prosecutors said Petersen used more than $400,000 of her money for personal use, including a lavish home remodel.

Court records show he never paid her nursing home bills, and the company received a $47,000 court judgment against the woman in May 2008.

Federal investigators, in previous courtroom testimony, have described Petersen as an organized crime figure involved in loan-sharking, bank fraud and strong-arm tactics, paying “goons” to collect debts. He reportedly made $6.5 million in the Montana bank scheme and lived like a millionaire playboy in Spokane until his arrest.

Petersen shocked federal authorities in December 2007 when he walked out of U.S. District Court in Spokane after reviewing paperwork indicating he would be taken into custody at the hearing.

He sped away in his Cadillac and was arrested five months later in Boulder, Colo., with a blond wig and books about changing identity.

Boulder police there said he had portrayed himself as an oil businessman to bilk a handful of investors out of $3,600.