Ron Wells, a prominent Spokane developer known for restoration of historic properties, was sentenced Wednesday to one year of home detention for staging car accidents and money laundering. He also must pay a $60,000 fine along with restitution of $179,876 to insurers.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice said the sentence on nine felony convictions should have been harsher, but acknowledged Wells’ age, declining health and low likelihood of recidivism.
“Justice should be blind,” Rice said. “I should treat you the same. I’m disgusted by your conduct, and your conduct deserves punishment.”
Wells’ position in the community was a frequent topic throughout the hearing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney George Jacobs wanted Wells imprisoned.
“These crimes are prime candidates for deterrence,” Jacobs said.
Kevin Curtis, Wells’ attorney, said the developer’s status in the community shouldn’t be “used as a shield by us nor a sword by the government.”
On Oct. 16, 2016, Wells worked with William Mize to stage a collision in Liberty Lake and defraud Safeco Insurance. Four others were involved, including Ryan Park, who provided information about Wells’ role during a “free talk” with the FBI, saying Wells found committing the crime “exhilarating.”
In addition to owing Mize $20,000, Wells was underwater financially on his 2015 Ram 3500 truck and, after discovering he had gap insurance, agreed to participate in the con. Hyslop characterized Wells as a savvy, well-educated businessman.
Wells has been a preservationist and developer in the community since 1983, saving dozens of buildings from demolition, as well as having 45 of his projects qualify for historic preservation tax credits. Those projects include the Steam Plant, Carnegie Square and many apartment buildings. He was engaged in a project to renovate the Ridpath Hotel to provide low-income housing, but Paul Mann became its manager following Wells’ indictment.
Curtis said Wells still has business interests throughout the community, but he wasn’t sure to what extent.
Jacobs characterized the crimes as being “well-orchestrated and well-planned,” rather than opportunistic. Jacobs acknowledged that Mize was the mastermind behind the crimes, comparing the scheme to a movie and Mize, currently a fugitive, to the director and producer of that movie. According to Jacobs, Mize “went over the script each actor was supposed to play.”
During Wells’ “free talk,” in which he provided information for other cases, Wells said he feared Mize. Jacobs didn’t think Wells was lying when he said Mize had threatened Wells. What didn’t add up for Jacobs was why Wells continued to associate with Mize after the initial staged accident, which cleared Wells of his debt. Wells attended Mize’s New Orleans birthday party and the wedding of Mize’s daughter in Las Vegas.
Wells also conspired with Mize to commit other crimes by depositing money that was illegally obtained in various accounts at Mize’s request.
“The United States submits there is no causal (relationship) between the threat and Wells’ decision to commit nine crimes,” Jacobs said. “That decision was the product of Mr. Wells’ free will. If Mr. Wells was truly threatened, there was a simple answer: You go to the authorities and report it to the police.”
Curtis said the threat was not the only reason Wells participated in the crimes, but it was a factor.
Jacobs said he believes Wells received a kickback for depositing the money, though this was not reflected in Wells’ bank records. However, files recovered on Mize’s computer indicated transactions occurred.
“Regarding the deposit, $7,500 is yours, the other $145,000 is mine,” Mize’s files showed. “Please write 4 checks for me, put the date of March 20, 2017 on each.”
The document detailed the accounts where Wells should deposit the money.
Jacobs recalled an expression he felt applied to Wells’ actions, saying, “The true mettle of a person’s character is not tested under the easiest of circumstances, but under the fiercest of fires.”
There were 17 letters of support for Wells. Though these letters were sealed, Hyslop referenced the content.
Jacobs said the letters made it clear that Wells had a lot of good friends, which for him prompted the question, “Why didn’t he go to any of those friends to borrow $20,000?”
He disagreed with the letters characterizing Wells as someone who had exercised poor judgment or made a mistake.
“One example of poor judgment would be not studying the night before a test,” Jacobs said. “A mistake would be a wrong answer on a test. I didn’t see the word ‘crime’ written in any of those letters. People make mistakes but those mistakes aren’t crimes. We have to call this conduct what it is.”
Jacobs recommended Wells receive 11 months’ incarceration.
Aside from Wells, 16 people have been sentenced in connection to the case, but Curtis argued that Wells had suffered a punishment the rest had not. Curtis called upon the recent death of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, saying Bryant had restored his legacy after a 2003 sexual assault case, but Wells likely would not have time to rebuild his because of his declining health and age.
“He can’t rehabilitate his public image because he doesn’t have that time,” Curtis said, adding that in his remaining time, Wells would like to share with others what he has learned from his mistakes.
In his sentencing, Rice took into account that Wells had cooperated and provided substantial information, including the fact that Mize carried five labeled burner phones. Other factors in Wells’ favor were that he never used fake names and didn’t claim injury in the staged accident.
In addition to extolling Wells’ contributions to the community, Curtis asked the judge to take into account Wells’ declining health, which ended up being a major factor in Rice’s sentencing decision. Wells has an undisclosed chronic illness, but faced even more health setbacks after undergoing bariatric surgery in August, recommended by a doctor because he had reached about 350 pounds.
After the surgery, Wells fell ill and doctors discovered he had a ruptured colon and massive bleeding, Curtis said. In mid-September, Wells went into a coma. He came out of the coma in late September. He went into several facilities due to his health and had five major surgeries, the last in November. He was discharged in January, and has been learning to walk again. He was able to walk into court on Wednesday.
“He’s certainly not the same person he was when he went into the surgery,” Curtis said.
Wells briefly addressed the court before the judge made his decision, saying he hoped he would be given the opportunity to heal, but more importantly heal those he hurt in committing the crimes.
“I made the decision,” Wells said. “I could have said no. I could have put a stop to it. I have paid a heavy price in public humiliation and financial loss.”
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