Carlos Meza, a Lake in the Hills businessman who swindled his friends and fellow church members out of nearly $900,000, was sentenced Thursday to 19 months in prison by a federal judge who seemed to find his apology as hollow as I did.
“Please, your honor, allow me to stay with my family. They need me,” Meza had told Judge Elaine Bucklo — after complaining that his victims were trying to use the criminal court system as a “collection agency.”
“I hear a lot of excuses, not much acceptance,” observed Bucklo following Meza’s tearful plea.
Meza’s comments about needing to take care of his wife and three daughters elicited a quiet scoff from Linda George, one of the victims seated in the courtroom.
Five years ago, federal agents sat down with George and her husband, Tom, to ask about a $60,000 “investment” Tom George made in one of the get-rich-quick schemes Meza was peddling.
After the interview, Tom George became rightfully fearful he was going to lose all that money. The next morning he dropped dead of a stress-induced heart attack, his wife left to put the pieces back together and finish raising their youngest son by herself.
Reasonable people can argue the cause-and-effect of Meza’s actions in relation to George’s death. He’s certainly not legally liable.
But George knows the impact Meza has had on her life, which is why she sent the court a letter asking he be given a maximum sentence “not only to help protect others from his actions, but also to allow his victims some semblance of justice.”
This was not really the kind of case that receives a maximum sentence.
Assistant U.S. attorney Rick Young argued Meza should receive a sentence within the range of 46 to 57 months suggested under federal guidelines.
“At the end of the day, he did this for no other reason than greed,” Young said.
Meza’s attorney, Joshua Kutnick, contended his client should get probation.
I would have given him 36 months, but I don’t like con men, much as I enjoy writing about them.
There’s a fine line between following a story through to its conclusion and kicking a dead horse, but I felt an obligation to close the book on Meza.
It’s been five years since I first wrote about the 25 people who gathered in a Skokie hotel meeting room to share stories of how Meza tricked them into parting with their money.
Many of them were members with Meza in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Others had intersected with him through various business entanglements.
Meza had convinced several of them they were his “best friend,” which became a joke between them once it got around. Meza always kept his business dealings compartmentalized so that none of them knew he was involved with fleecing the other — until it was too late.
Still, as swindlers go, Meza is hardly the worst.
In fact, that was actually an element of Meza’s defense and conceded in part by prosecutors, because much of the money Meza talked his friends into “investing” flowed upstream to more prolific flim-flam operators who have not been charged.
Meza told the judge he had been duped by “unscrupulous fraudsters.”
“At the time, it all seemed very legitimate. I’m very sorry for it,” he said, only to later add: “To hold me totally responsible is unfair.”
Meza indeed expected the various investment schemes to which he steered his friends would make them rich — and him as well in the process as he had no funds of his own to invest, despite reassuring his victims by telling them he’d put in more money than them.
Bucklo took note of Meza’s victims as she nixed his plea for probation.
“You deceived them in some cases knowing it was going to be a hardship for them if they did not get the money back. It was pretty callous,” she said.
Bucklo allowed Meza to wait until October 31 to report to prison, in part because he is scheduled to go on trial again in September in McHenry County on state charges that he bilked other friends from church in a mortgage refinancing scam.
I probably won’t cover that trial because that really would be beating a dead horse. But I will be eagerly awaiting the outcome — and rooting for a (short) consecutive sentence.