Crime

Indiana man, 68, sentenced to 22 years in NC-based Ponzi scheme

Thomas Kimmel, right, leaves the federal courthouse in Raleigh with his brother-in-law, Donald Henderson, minutes after a judge sentenced Kimmel, 68, to 22 years in prison on charges that he raised funds for a Ponzi scheme.
Thomas Kimmel, right, leaves the federal courthouse in Raleigh with his brother-in-law, Donald Henderson, minutes after a judge sentenced Kimmel, 68, to 22 years in prison on charges that he raised funds for a Ponzi scheme. akenney@newsobserver.com

Even after the millions were gone and Thomas Kimmel wept from sunken eyes before a federal judge, he still had the faith of a few of those listed in court documents as his victims.

A weeklong trial in June had made a few things clear: Kimmel, 68, sold unsuspecting churchgoers on bunk investments through a Washington, N.C., company. He collected $1.9 million in commissions, and 300-plus people lost at least $16 million, according to court records.

But the question on Thursday, in the hours before Judge James Dever III chose a punishment, leaned closer to morality than statistics.

For six hours, the court considered whether this Indiana man, with his modest suit and his single gold ring, was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or a servant whose good works went wrong.

Kimmel presented himself for some 20 years as a financial adviser in the name of Jesus Christ.

A salesman by profession, a combat veteran of Vietnam and a 1975 Baptist convert, he found this second career late in life, according to his attorney.

His home base was First Baptist Church in Hammond, Ind., one of the largest houses of worship in the country. During the last 20 years he branched out across the country, hosting conferences about “God’s Plan for His Money.”

He built a reputation on kindness. Pleading for a lower sentence on Thursday, defense attorney Woody Vann read accounts of how Kimmel filled charity bins with new presents or bought groceries for struggling families, and even gave 30 percent of his commission from the scheme to charity.

A succession of people at the stand railed against Kimmel, too, with stories of emptied retirement accounts and college funds.

To people like Debbie Baldwin, 44, Kimmel seemed at first a saving grace. Baldwin’s husband had died in an Air Force helicopter crash in 2002, and she wanted to turn his benefits into a solid base for her young sons. Kimmel seemed to know where to put the money.

“The pastor that I loved trusted him,” she said. “He traveled the nation – people looked up to him.”

Soon after they met, Kimmel drew her toward Sure Line Acceptance Corp. He had joined the company in 2006, according to court documents and Kimmel’s lawyer.

Others plead guilty

The idea of the business – which was initially legitimate, according to prosecutors – was to finance used-car loans. With the recession beginning, Kimmel said the company would get high interest rates from people who had no other option, according to his brother-in-law, Donald Henderson of Georgia.

For some, the company offered returns of 1 percent per month. And if they had doubts, Kimmel often had the endorsement of local religious leaders, who in some cases got a 1 percent commission on their flock.

Prosecutors said Sure Line and Kimmel falsely promised that every investment was free of risk and backed by collateral, when in fact new investments were being used primarily to pay the company’s officers and previous investors, according to court filings.

Three other officers in the company – James Willis Kirk Jr., Glen E. Smith Jr. and Carol April Graff – pleaded guilty earlier this year, receiving sentences up to five years.

Kimmel instead went to trial. His lawyers at sentencing argued that he had only been lax in his oversight rather than malicious, as he raised millions from 2006 to 2011.

He apologized in tears to the victims lined in the first row, telling Baldwin “how much we love you and your family,” and he insisted, again, “that I did not steal your money.”

“I realize that I was the face of Sure Line, and there would be no victims ... were it not for me,” Kimmel said.

Kimmel told prospective investors, according to an indictment, that the deal was risk free, that the FBI had deemed the fund legitimate, and that all of his family’s money was in the company.

“He was cold-hearted,” Baldwin said. “He was calculated.”

In fact, Kimmel and his wife did lose $50,000 on the deal, according to his attorney.

But federal prosecutor David Bragdon argued that “for the defendant, this, his role in this, was a fraud from day one.”

He argued that Kimmel had sold victims on the deal even as the scheme’s finances plummeted, and he condemned a “crime that used God’s name.”

Attorney asks for leniency

Dever said he had taken account of Kimmel’s clean record and years of good deeds but also the need for punishment.

Some of the victims wanted to see Kimmel imprisoned for life. Some left it to the law or divine decision.

Kimmel’s attorney asked the sentence be reduced from the recommended minimum of 30 years down to five years. Kimmel said that the judge’s decision would be God’s doing.

Before a silent courtroom, Dever announced a sentence of 22 years and ordered Kimmel to pay more than $16.5 million in restitution.

Kimmel will be allowed to stay for a month in Indiana, where his wife is suffering from cancer, until he enters the federal prison system in North Carolina.

Kimmel still has much of his family’s faith, even as relatives struggle with losses.

“I cannot, do not, and will not believe Tom would have allowed me and my family to suffer,” said Henderson, the brother-in-law who invested $750,000. He’s starting from zero, he said – and that’s OK.

“I was never dependent on money to begin with,” he said. “I’m dependent on my God.”

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