FORT PIERCE, Fla. — A former senior pastor at Hobe Sound Bible Church was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in federal court Monday after pleading guilty in October to an investment fraud that authorities say scammed investors of more than $2.2 million.
Former Hobe Sound resident Paul D. Wolfe, 42, who was taken into custody immediately after his hearing, had traveled from his Cincinnati, Ohio, home to face U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez, who also ordered him to pay $2.2 million in restitution and serve three years of supervised release.
Wolfe had turned himself into federal authorities in October 2011 to face eight counts of wire fraud. He pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. He had faced a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Wolfe's scam, investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, spanned from 2005 until his arrest in October 2011, and defrauded 21 investors of $3,154,059, according to a federal complaint.
In court, Wolfe, dressed in blue slacks and a tan jacket, was polite and appeared calm and contrite as about a dozen of victims listened to him apologize, and ask for mercy.
"I know words alone won't bring this money back," Wolfe told the court. "I'm deeply sorry ... I failed my family, my friends and I failed my faith."
Martinez though, appeared little moved when Wolfe's West Palm Beach lawyer Gregg S. Lerman said his client should be spared a lengthy prison term because his wasn't a widespread fraud, and involved a lone perpetrator, not an organized group.
"We are the fraud capital of the world," an exasperated Martinez noted. "We have so many people waiting in the wings wanting to commit fraud."
In a federal complaint, prosecutors said Wolfe used his firm Traders Investment Group LLC, formed in Ohio in 2004, as an "investment vehicle in which he represented to prospective investors that he would be investing in futures of U.S. Treasury securities."
Wolfe represented himself to be an experienced investor, according to court papers, who had his own firm and invested in U.S. Treasury bonds.
According to the guilty plea Wolfe signed, investors lost money "based on his intentional misrepresentations" in that, he claimed his trading activities were profitable.
"It was the object of the scheme for the defendant to obtain money from investors under false pretenses ... and then to use those investors' moneys to enrich himself," the plea stated.
Heather Milliard of Iowa, a mother of four children, told the court two years ago she lost to Wolfe a major portion of the life insurance money she received after her husband's drowning death.
"I was very scared to lose money, because it was my children's future," she said in court. "It was all lies, he had no intention of paying me back ... 60 percent of my children's money is gone, taken by a man I trusted."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Carlton noted too that a nonprofit school for Indian children in Arizona lost $1.3 million after investing with Wolfe.
Wolfe moved from Ohio in July 2007 with his wife and two children to accept a job as senior pastor at Hobe Sound Bible Church. By April 2010, he had returned to Ohio and until Monday was employed by the University of Cincinnati working in the finance department as a coordinator of surplus property.
In a prepared statement, Harold Martin, chairman of the board of Hobe Sound Bible Church said Wolfe worked for them until September 2009.
"Though we were aware at that time that he was involved in a small investment business there were no accusations of criminal wrong doing at the time of his hiring or during his tenure as our Senior Pastor," Martin said. "The church was not involved in any way with this business or aware of its activities and dealings. No church money was invested with Mr. Wolfe before, during, or after his tenure as our pastor."
In court, Martinez said letters presented to him written on Wolfe's behalf characterizing him as a "good man" who wouldn't commit investment fraud didn't help his case.
"It's like none of these people believe he cheated them, but he did ... he took their money and he kept it for his own personal use and that's the worst kind," Martinez said. "He's not a good guy, he's a thief and he pleaded guilty to being a thief. And it was a lot of money ... he was in a position of trust, and a position of trust as a church leader."
After Martinez pronounced sentence, Wolfe's victims remained in court to watch him remove his watch, belt and jacket before being handcuffed and escorted from court.