NEW YORK (AP) — A one-time corporate lawyer who cheated friends and relatives of life savings in a $5 million Ponzi scheme before writing a 16-page suicide note and jumping into the Hudson River was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison as former friends watched with content at the severity of his penalty.
U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain gave Charles Bennett a prison term at the high end of federal sentencing guidelines after listening to nine former friends say he ruined their financial security after luring them with promises to let them in on an investment with an exclusive hedge fund normally reserved for the wealthy.
The judge said he instead spent their money on cocaine, foreign travel and to make payouts to some of about 30 investors. She cited “lives ruined, dreams lost, children’s educational opportunities foreclosed” by Bennett’s six-year fraud. Victims nodded in approval of the sentence.
Brendt Mullan held up pictures of two sons, saying the loss of his $200,000 investment had diminished his family’s “hopes and dreams for a better future.” He compared Bennett to Ponzi king Bernard Madoff, 78, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence after exposing in 2008 a multi-decade fraud that cheated thousands of investors of about $20 billion.
John Hanson said Bennett squandered $1.4 million that his family had taken 60 years to accumulate.
Before the sentence was announced, Bennett, 58, turned toward the victims and apologized, quickly adding that he knows “it rings hollow.”
“I’m a criminal. I’m a thief. I’m a liar,” he told them, at times choking up. “I deserve to be punished. I deserve to go to jail. … I don’t want anyone to think lawyers are like this. It’s just me.”
Bennett added: “I didn’t run anywhere except off a pier. I just thought that’s what you do when you steal from your own mother.”
He alluded to the job rescue workers did to resuscitate him when he was pulled from the frigid water when he said: “I am back literally from the dead.”
He told them he could understand if “you want to hate me or you want me to take another trip off that pier.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Lester said Bennett’s friends only learned there were other victims when they showed up at the hospital where he was treated for over a month.
She said the impact on them from a “horrific crime” was made worse because they were mostly working class people who looked up to him as a successful Manhattan attorney who had worked at prominent large firms.
“That is why the betrayal of that trust runs so deep,” she said.
Defense attorney Julia Gatto noted that Bennett’s mother and sister were in court to support him. She said he has undergone therapy and lives in his mother’s Minneapolis basement as he tries to recover from immense remorse.
“What’s happened over the last year is redemptive and beautiful,” she said. “He is punishing himself every day.”