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Judge rejects reduced sentence for Draper man who stole tens of millions in Ponzi scheme

Published: Tuesday, July 26 2011 5:24 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — His professed desperation to save his business belies the staggering amount of other people's money Travis L. Wright spent.

• Former Utah Jazz star Jeff Hornacek's house: $5 million

• Credit card expenses: $4 million

• Luxury cars, jewelry, furniture, art work: $2.4 million

• Wife's spending money: $1.3 million

• Tithing: $850,000

• International travel: $700,000

In all, Wright spent about $15 million he stole in one of Utah's largest Ponzi schemes. The Draper man, according to court documents, knew early on his real estate loan program known as Waterford Funding was ill-conceived and unprofitable, yet he strung it along for nearly a decade bilking more than 200 investors — many of whom were older than 70 — of $145 million.

"His decision thereafter to steal from new investors and pay old investors, while at the same time lining his pockets and living a lavish and opulent lifestyle, was calculated, callous, and in complete disregard of the numerous financial devastations he knew would follow," assistant U.S. attorney Mark Hirata wrote in a federal court memorandum.

"This was not simply a crime of opportunity. It was as long, methodical and deceptive as any Ponzi scheme committed in Utah."

But Hirata also wrote that Wright, 48, showed "unprecedented" cooperation with the FBI, beginning with a taped confession and six months of interviews. Wright's cooperation, mostly without the assistance of legal counsel, saved the government time, resources and money, he said.

And for that, prosecutors and defense attorney agreed that Wright should spend eight years in prison for pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud.

But U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups disagreed. In an unusual move Tuesday, the judge rejected a sentencing agreement between the parties, noting Wright's deception lasted years and hurt many older people.

"He was taking people's retirement money," he said.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of up to 188 months, and victims told Waddoups in the courtroom and in letters that Wright should serve every day of it, if not more.

"Eight years? It should be 48 years. He should never get out," said 87-year-old Maurice Burton who invested $330,000, a nest egg he'd built up from money earned serving in the South Pacific during World War II. "Sixty-five years it took me and 65 seconds for him to steal it."

Said a 76-year-old investor who declined to give his name, "Travis looked me in the face and lied and lied and lied. … I'm disgusted that Travis sits there and acts pious knowing what he's done."

When Waddoups gave Wright the opportunity to speak, he turned and faced his victims seated in the courtroom. He said he didn't know when he made the decision to take people's "sacred, hard-earned" money. But he now feels "horrible" for it.

"I'm truly sorry for what I have done and ask your forgiveness for the misdeeds I have done," he said.

Some of the victims weren't buying it, and one snorted and started to walk out before taking his seat again.

The judge's decision means Wright can withdraw his guilty plea. Hirata said afterward he intends to negotiate a new sentence recommendation, and if that doesn't work, go to trial. Wright and his attorney, Rob Hunt, had no comment as they left the courtroom.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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