A federal judge ruled Wednesday that two Macon residents, accused of defrauding investors out of $2.11 million in an alleged Ponzi scheme, violated conditions of their bond.
The judge ordered Gary Sheldon Hutcheson, 56, and Saundra McKinney Pyles, 52, to remain in custody until trial because they contacted victims, potential witnesses and family members while free on an unsecured bond.
In a nearly 30-minute speech, Judge Leon Barfield of the Southern District of Georgia surmised that Hutcheson and Pyles had shown a “clear pattern of obstructing behavior.” He said the two clearly acknowledged they had read and understood the orders preventing them from contacting victims, family and witnesses, by signing a paper listing the conditions.
“You don’t want to have the defendant calling up victims and witnesses or talking to them on the street,” Barfield said, explaining victims and witnesses are already in “a precarious situation.”
Barfield, who presided over the hearing because local federal magistrate Claude Hicks recused himself, said the Colorado judge “bent over backwards” to be lenient.
The judge described the couple as a “flight risk” because their ties to the community didn’t stop them from disappearing for several months prior to their April 28 arrest.
Eric Gonzalez, the FBI agent investigating the case, testified at Wednesday’s hearing that Hutcheson and Pyles left town soon after civil actions were filed in Bibb County Superior Court in fall 2008. He said his investigation began around September 2008.
When U.S. marshals found Hutcheson and Pyles in Colorado, he said the house they were renting was in disarray. Investigators found “numerous alcohol” containers, cigarettes and two small handguns, Gonzalez said.
A report prepared by the probation office in Colorado showed Hutcheson and Pyles were not employed in Colorado, Barfield said.
Gonzalez testified that he interviewed family members of Hutcheson and Pyles, victims and potential witnesses in the case who have said they were contacted by the couple he described as “boyfriend and girlfriend.”
All of the contact was by phone. Some was initiated by Hutcheson and Pyles while other calls were placed by family members, victims and potential witnesses.
Although there were no direct threats of violence, he said some of the people he interviewed expressed fear of Hutcheson.
“They are terrified of Mr. Hutcheson,” said prosecutor David C. Stephens.
Pyles entered the courtroom Wednesday wearing handcuffs and leg shackles while Hutcheson wore only handcuffs. Neither made eye contact with the family members, friends and investors attending the hearing.
Gonzalez said some of the people he interviewed said Hutcheson threatened if he went down everyone would go down and “dirty family secrets would come out.”
In some phone calls, Gonzalez said witnesses told him Hutcheson sounded like he was drunk and had trouble forming sentences.
Hutcheson’s public defender, Brian Jarrard, said Hutcheson asked the probation officer supervising him whether he could call family members and he was told yes.
During the hearing, the judge asked a local probation officer to call the probation office in Colorado to gather information about the conversation.
The probation officer confirmed Hutcheson was told he couldn’t call family members, Barfield said.
Jarrard said Hutcheson doesn’t have a drug or alcohol problem.
Gonzalez said Pyles’ family has said they would give her a place to live if she agreed not to have contact with Hutcheson and sought treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.
Pyles’ court appointed lawyer, Reza Sedghi, said none of her family members have said they fear Pyles.
He questioned Gonzalez about the documents of incorporation for the Georgia Ionics Fund.
Gonzalez said Pyles’ name is not listed on the records.
Both Jarrard and Sedghi argued that Hutcheson and Pyles traveled across the country and voluntarily appeared in court Monday.
Jarrard asked the judge to consider allowing Hutcheson to return to Colorado or home confinement as an alternative to his remaining in custody until trial.
Pyles held her face in her right hand and dabbed her eyes as the judge announced his decision that she and Hutcheson will remain in custody.
If convicted, Hutcheson and Pyles could face between 57 months or a maximum sentence of up to 40 years in prison followed by a period of supervised release and up to a $750,000 fine.
The couple was indicted April 22 on five counts of mail fraud and five counts of money laundering.
Hutcheson solicited investments from people beginning in May 2006, telling them he would place the money in a hedge fund named Georgia Ionics Fund LLC, according to federal court records.
Authorities say Hutcheson invested just $780,000 of investors’ money and pocketed more than $1.3 million. Most of the $780,000 was lost in the stock market.
A list of investors includes prominent Macon business owners, doctors, accountants and a retired Superior Court judge, according to Bibb County Superior Court records.
Hutcheson and Pyles were arrested April 28 at the home they were renting in Pueblo, Colo., according to federal court records.
A federal judge in Colorado released Hutcheson and Pyles on a $20,000 unsecured bond on May 4 and ordered they be provided with subsistence funds for living expenses and travel to Macon because their money was seized by investigators, according to the records.
Hutcheson and Pyles have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.