J. Gary Sheets felt tremendous pressure to plea bargain to one or two counts in exchange for the remaining charges in the 34-count indictment being dropped. But he says he fought against all charges because they were untrue.
"They were going to indict me Jan. 27 of 1988, and they delayed that and they delayed it and delayed it," Sheets said in a Deseret News interview Monday. He spoke by telephone from his home in Richfield."I felt it was to put pressure on me. I think they wanted me to settle."
The indictment was finally issued Oct. 19, 1988, in a spectacular press conference by then-U.S. Attorney Brent D. Ward.
He said the pressure to plea bargain was unbelievable.
Contacts between the government and the defense over a possible plea took place, confirmed Peter Stirba, one of Sheets' lawyers.
"There were discussions," Stirba said. "As you would expect in any case there are always discussions with the parties in an attempt to settle their dispute prior to trial."
Sheets said that just before the trial, Judge David Sam seemed interested in knowing whether the defense and prosecution were negotiating a plea.
Sheets said Stirba thought he could get a deal in which Sheets pleaded guilty to only one or two counts.
Otherwise, he faced a theoretical maximum possible prison sentence in the neighborhood of 200 years if he were convicted on all counts.
Sheets talked it over with his family. "I said, `You know, if I were to plead guilty I would be lying to myself," he said. "And the other thing that would happen, that would be a reflection on all of those outstanding people (in his companies)."
He emphasized that it would also cast a poor reflection on Steve Christensen, his former business partner. As the Sheets' financial empire was crumbling, Christensen and Sheets' wife, Kathleen, were both murdered by bomber and forger Mark Hofmann. Throughout the trial, Sheets said he loved Christensen like a son. He did not wish to cast aspersions on his memory.
"If I'd pleaded guilty I would have been a con man that copped a plea and it would have reflected on everyone there - and especially Steve."
He resisted the pressure and decided to fight every count.
Throughout it all, he said, he was upheld by the kindness and love of many friends. "I have been blessed in my life with a number of just very good friends. That kind of keeps you going, that and the family."
At the start of the trial, he and Diane went to a movie called "Beaches" in which there's a song with words something like, "I could soar like an eagle because you were the wind beneath my wings."
"I came out and I said, Diane, that's you."
Sheets, a former LDS bishop, also found strength in prayer. That seemed to relieve the pressure. During the last few days, there wasn't a lot of stress, he said. By that time in the trial, many people would have been climbing the walls, he said. "I don't know if I felt confident - but it was just peaceful," Sheets said.
He and his second wife, Diane, prayed together during the trial's last week. He said they "just said, `Hey, Lord, whatever happens, we'll just accept graciously. And it won't change us - and we'll adjust to it and we'll accept it."
It is hard to describe the overall ordeal of indictment and trial, he said. Sometimes he was angry. "You basically believe in yourself," he said. In fact, that has been a hallmark of Gary Sheets - he has always been the optimist.
Now, he believes the experience may have moderated him, made him into more of a realist. But whether he felt optimistic or more realistic, he knew he was innocent.
"I knew what was done with CFS. I felt very bad that we lost money for investors. "What came out in the trial was true, (that) those investors were some of my best friends. It's always painful to lose money for investors.
"I said right at the very start of this thing that we've made some mistakes, and that we had too fast a growth, and we had some bad management. "There was no fraud.
"But going through this, you kind of feel like everyone's misinterpreting you. Everyone's not understanding, and it gets to you. Sometimes you go through even doubting yourself, and then you try to shake yourself out of that."
One of the things that hurt was that company officials testified that the Working Fund projects, in which investors lost money, were Christensen's idea. But he said that later on in the trial, when Sheets testified, the Salt Lake TV stations made it out as he was trying to blame Christensen.
Sheets and his family feel very happy and grateful about the verdict exonerating him.
"It's a real ordeal. It's one I want to digest and think about. It's hard to decide where to go with my life," he said.
"I felt all along so impressed with Peter and David (Peter Stirba and David Bird, his lawyers), and I knew early in the game that they really were not only just taking my case, but they believed in me."
Stirba also said he's very pleased with the outcome.
"I guess I'm especially pleased by the fact that the jury performed the way it did. It was a very complicated, difficult, long, drawn-out case.
"The jury was very conscientious throughout the whole case, took extensive notes, and obviously weighed everything very carefully, as evidenced by the length of their deliberations."