A former Carefree man who pleaded guilty to spending elderly investors' money on planes, luxury cars, and jewels was sentenced Friday to 17 1/2 years in prison.
Benjamin Franklin Cook III, 55, who has been jailed since October 1999, agreed to plead guilty to three theft counts in exchange for the dismissal of more than 30 other charges.
Admitting that "mistakes had been made," Cook asked for probation so he could try to repay about 300 investors more than $43 million he collected between Jan 1, 1998, and March 15, 1999.
But Judge Greg Martin of Maricopa County Superior Court wasn't buying it.
"If this isn't an aggravated case, I don't know what is," he told Cook, who once lived on a 10-acre spread in Carefree. "This is so much money and the fraud is so gross, there just has to be a major sanction against you."
Cook's Dennel Financial Limited collapsed after a nearly three-year investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Arizona Corporation Commission, the U.S. Customs Service and state Attorney General's Office. Prosecutors said Cook promised to sink investors' money into a secretive European Bank Trading Program but spent it on two planes, a 31-foot cabin cruiser, jewels and fat commissions for top salesmen, including a BMW.
Lawrence Warfield, a certified public accountant appointed as the receiver in the Cook case, testified Friday that the money was never invested and the type of foreign investment Cook promised "doesn't exist."
Warfield's seizure and sale of Cook's home and other assets netted about $15 million. That includes the $1.5 million Cook donated to the Church of Scientology, which handed over the money as part of a civil suit.
About $12.5 million has been returned to investors, many of whom wrote Martin, telling him that Cook robbed them of their retirement money.
Still, Cook has many supporters. Leroy Robinson of Chandler, who sold Cook his two planes, said in an interview that he invested $400,000 and was getting regular interest payments of $2,000 a month until Dennel Financial was shut down.
"If he ever gets out of this, I'd invest with him again," he said.
But Martin said he wasn't convinced that Cook's supporters understood that they were being paid by the money Cook took from new investors.
"I feel for them," Martin said of Cook's supporters.