A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a former Canton ceramics salesman to 40 years in prison for swindling millions from hundreds of Christian investors.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn had harsh words for Gregory Setser, 50, whose four-month trial last year produced a parade of ruined investors – who together lost more than $60 million – that she found "terribly disturbing."
"This crime is as horrific as a crime of violence," Judge Lynn said. "It was a giant holdup."
She also ordered Mr. Setser and the rest of his family implicated in the case to pay about $62 million in restitution but acknowledged that would probably never happen given that he is likely to die in prison.
From 2001, when the enterprise began in Texas, until federal agents raided his California home in late 2003, Mr. Setser, along with his wife, son, sister and other relatives and associates, ran an import scam that raked in at least $170 million from about 1,700 people.
Targeting mostly Christian investors, including televangelist Benny Hinn, through churches and other groups, Mr. Setser claimed that his company, IPIC Investments, could produce up to 50 percent returns by buying cheap, foreign-made products that would be sold to major U.S. retailers such as Michaels, Hobby Lobby and Costco.
Virtually no products were ever bought or sold, and the Setsers used the earlier investors' money to pay the growing number of later investors until the pyramid scheme collapsed.
Mr. Hinn was one of the few who made money – $165,000 on a $300,000 personal investment – but he returned the cash when it was revealed that the enterprise was criminal. Using connections to people such as Mr. Hinn and others, Mr. Setser and his family made millions, and spent it on mansions, a $2.3 million yacht, a couple of airplanes, a helicopter and several luxury vehicles.
Judge Lynn gave little weight to some surprise evidence that the government introduced at Mr. Setser's sentencing hearing last month. It involved an odd series of taped phone calls that prosecutors say Mr. Setser engaged in while in custody at the Seagoville federal prison.
In the approximately 500 calls, recorded over a six-month period ending only a few weeks ago, Mr. Setser appears to be plotting with his wife, Cynthia, and a man who described himself as a U.N. diplomat to bribe an unknown judge and arrange for a U.N.-backed band of 19 armed commandos to travel from Europe to bust him out of prison.
He also talks about collecting fees from some of the former investors he bilked, enabling them to be part of a class-action lawsuit he planned to bring against the government that would recover the millions that were lost.
"No one has contacted me to offer me a bribe," Judge Lynn said. "This is just more of the same from you."
Mr. Setser's attorney, Donald Templin, said his client was not plotting an armed escape, but actually believed – falsely, it turns out – that the U.N. was "working through lawful means to overturn his conviction and secure his release from prison."
"I wish he had gotten less time," Mr. Templin said.
Mr. Setser faced a life sentence of 385 years. The government agreed, however, that 40 years for a man his age and his ill health was in effect a life sentence.
Also on Wednesday, Judge Lynn sentenced Mr. Setser's sister, Deborah Setser, to 15 years in prison for her role in the scam.