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Where’d the $14 Million Go?

Meanwhile, Back in the Hoosegow


THOUSANDS CHEER: The streets of Santa Barbara tell stories this week of the rises and the woes of our fellow humans, lionized on the Arlington stage or shivering in nearby dark doorways.

Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and the rest of the cast of the Oscar-bound The King’s Speech were cheered by 2,000 people Monday night at the Arlington — while Lady Luck turned her back on the mentally ill, the war-wounded veterans, substance abusers, and others in the chill shadows.

Barney Brantingham

Then there are people like Michael Lee Wilson, 56, of Orcutt, who could be found neither in the footlights nor in a curb bedroll but in Sheriff Bill Brown’s hoosegow. Wilson, it seems, is one of America’s growing legion of white-collar crooks who are too clever by half, as the expression goes, while taking the low road to Easy Street.

Wilson stole an estimated $14 million from his fellow humans, but not by knocking them on the head or looting their homes. That’s old-fashioned and does not yield the kind of money that sweet talk does. Alas, even in these cynical times we live in, about 60 people had the faith to invest in Wilson’s Pacific Coast Mortgage company in Lompoc.

Wilson, as I understand it, induced the unwary into making him short-term loans based on flimflammed deeds of trust for investment properties.

It’s a sad story we hear so often these days, but certainly not national news at a time when New Yorker Bernie Madoff ripped off his friends and other trusting souls to the tune of $65 billion dollars. It was the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time, thanks to botched federal investigations of Bernie. He just pocketed the dough, shelled out enough to make his victims happy, and lived the high life — until the bad news hit. Now he’s in prison for life.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that Wilson could find victims, but here’s what does surprise me: As I understand it, a certain amount of time will be knocked off Wilson’s 20-year-plus term in the slammer for each million he repays. But apparently, he’s not able to scrape up much of the $14 million to do so.

For the life of me, here’s what I don’t get: how you can steal $14 million and not know where it went. And how you can give a few million back in order to reduce the time you’ll spend in prison. There apparently are no jets, Paris apartments, yachts, or country estates to grab. So where did it go? Some, apparently, went to pay off early investors. In fact, we the taxpayers are bearing the cost of Wilson’s defense, via a public defender, because the $14-million man hasn’t a dime to hire his own attorney.

At least Madoff lived large in New York City and had millions in assets to make a dent in repaying his victims. Wilson’s victims, many of them elderly and all of them angry, are expected to testify at his February 23 Superior Court sentencing hearing about how he took a sledge hammer to their lives and life savings.

MOVIE STORY: All Ms. M wanted to do was spend a quiet afternoon on a recent Sunday at the flicks. But it wasn’t to be.

She had gotten all settled in when two tall people planted themselves in front of her at Paseo Nuevo. A woman nearby began a running commentary to a friend about action on the screen and her personal life. Two guys from another movie dropped in and stood around chatting and rattling their bags of popcorn. Exasperated, Ms. M went out to the lobby and got management to tell them to split. Then a woman two seats away began texting, rattling her popcorn bag, and plopping her drink cup down loudly. When Ms. M tapped her on the shoulder to ask her to stop, the woman got up, went out to the lobby, and accused her of hitting her.

Soon two young women from management arrived to ask Ms. M for an explanation. Ms. M went to the manager’s office, explained it all, and was given two free passes. “I don’t know how the movie ended because I left,” Ms. M said. “I went home and watched a DVD.” Ms. M said audiences at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival are “much different,” true movie buffs.

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA: Joshua Bell picked up his $3.5-million Stradivarius one chilly day in 2007 and, as a Washington Post experiment, played for 45 minutes in a Washington, D.C., subway station. No one recognized perhaps the world’s most famous fiddler. CAMA is bringing him to the Granada on February 8.

SISTER SYLVIANNE, OSF, DIES: We got to be good friends during her 24 years at St. Francis Hospital, where she became CEO and was credited with leading the charge for much-needed renovations, financed by her fundraising. Sister Sylvianne retired in 1989 to the mother house of the Order of Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Illinois. She died January 21, 2010, at age 94.

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