FRESNO — For their roles in a mortgage fraud case that rocked Bakersfield, David Crisp was sentenced Monday to 17 1/2 years in prison while his wife, Jennifer, received what the federal judge in the case called “the break of a lifetime”: five years probation.
David, 34, was immediately remanded to custody to begin serving what amounts to the same sentence given in February to his former business partner, Carl Cole, who like Crisp had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud. Both former principals of Crisp & Cole Real Estate and Tower Lending were ordered to pay restitution of more than $28 million.
Jennifer Crisp, who was ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution, received a light sentence out of concern for the couple’s 10-year-old son. The 31-year-old mother had admitted to mail and wire fraud.
“I cannot in good conscience leave your son without a parent. I can’t do it,” Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill said. He warned, however, that he would send her to prison for at least five years, maybe 10, if she violated the terms of her probation.
O’Neill cited sharply different circumstances surrounding the two defendants before handing down the sentences at emotional proceedings at the federal district court in Fresno.
He said he struggled with how to punish Jennifer, whose primary crime was acting as a “straw buyer” in a scheme that relied on bogus mortgage loan applications — at least seven signed by her — to buy and sell houses multiple times to extract equity from the meteoric rise in Bakersfield home values between January 2004 and September 2007.
O’Neill said he wasn’t sure whether Jennifer was as naive as her attorney, Gary Huss, presented her.
“There are only two explanations to me,” the judge said. “One, that she’s mentally ill, or two, that she is the most naive person to ever come before this court.”
But ultimately, O’Neill said he wanted to keep her out of prison so that their son wouldn’t have both parents behind bars.
An audible gasp was heard in the courtroom when, just before delivering the sentence, the judge said he was about to give her the “break of a lifetime.”
Jennifer had faced up to 20 years in prison, 10 fewer than David had. Federal prosecutors had recommended just short of three years for Jennifer.
David received no such leniency.
“You have brought people to their knees in circumstances where they never would have been ... had they not met you,” O’Neill said to Crisp.
Both defendants declined to speak to reporters Monday.
In a news release, federal prosecutors said David had finally “crashed hard” after flaunting his “ill-gotten wealth” and going around in exotic cars, Armani suits and a private jet.
“David Crisp lived in the fast lane, steering a real estate company that was all image and no substance,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner wrote.
As the housing bubble burst, Crisp & Cole's projects fell through, home defaults mounted and lawsuits were filed. By September 2007 the IRS had slapped David and Jennifer Crisp with a $111,170 lien in back taxes and the FBI began investigating.
Within days, more than 75 federal agents swarmed over 13 properties related to the former Crisp & Cole company.
In his plea agreement, David Crisp admitted that he and his co-conspirators caused losses of at least $29.8 million to defrauded lenders.
The Crisps’ guilty pleas brought to 14 the number of defendants who have done so in the case. One has been released from custody; O’Neill is expected to sentence the rest by June 9.
A trial is expected to begin April 8 for Crisp's and Cole's former operations manager, Julie Dianne Farmer, the only defendant in the case without a plea deal. She maintains she did not know the work she did for them was against the law.
David, dressed Monday in a tieless powder blue shirt and black slacks, offered the judge a tearful plea. He said his father had left him as a youth but that he had nevertheless grown up a hard worker — “the hardest worker you could ever meet” — who took responsibility for his actions, including getting married as a teenager when his girlfriend became pregnant.
As for the success he appeared to achieve as a young real estate mogul, Crisp told the judge, “It got to my head, your honor.”
His Fresno lawyer, Eric Kersten, portrayed Crisp as an inexperienced “kid” caught up in a booming market. Kersten tried to shift some of the blame to Cole and the bankers anxious to give out loans during the real estate boom.
“Everybody was making money. It was like the wild West,” Kersten said.
“David was the visionary of the (business), but he didn’t come up with all this,” he said. “Nobody ever said, ‘David, we can’t do this.’”
Prosecutors, however, painted Crisp as the “driving force” who recruited straw buyers, including his wife’s family, to participate in a “giant Ponzi scheme.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Sherriff asserted that the people who suffered most were legitimate buyers who bought houses in neighborhoods where prices went through the roof and then collapsed as a result of Crisp’s and Cole’s deceit.
“This defendant has destroyed numerous lives and has caused enormous damage,” Sherriff said.
Just before issuing the sentence, O’Neill said he didn’t know if Crisp was “young, stupid and naive” or “young, reckless and greedy.”
“But the result is the same,” he said.
Jennifer Crisp cried the moment she first stood before the judge, which was just a few minutes after bailiffs escorted her husband from the courtroom.
O’Neill asked where her son was Monday, to which she replied that he was with her father.
“He (Crisp’s son) wanted to come today, but I told him it was too much. He gets it and he doesn’t,” she said.
Huss, her Fresno lawyer, told the judge Crisp truly was the trusting wife she appeared to be, and not a mentally ill person or someone driven by greed.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Baker emphasized that Jennifer had caused lenders $1.7 million in losses spread across seven home purchases.
“That’s criminal culpability that needs to be punished,” Baker said.
O’Neill made it clear that her light sentence was not given to benefit her but her son.
“This is your son. What you do and what you don’t do in life, you owe him something,” the judge said. “You brought him into this world.”