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By Felix Adamo/ The Californian
BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Crisp was such a trusting wife she let her husband's employees take care of details she really should have handled herself.
They not only made payments on at least seven homes fraudulently purchased under her name, but they paid her household bills "because I wanted no part of it," according to recent federal court filings.
But if she was in the dark about her husband David's criminal business activities, she was not blind to the benefits. Among the court files are receipts for a $27,500 Chanel watch, a $1,140 Louis Vuitton shoulder bag and trips the couple took to Tahiti and Cancun, Mexico.
Now, as Jennifer awaits sentencing at the end of this month on federal charges of mail and wire fraud, concerns are being raised that her claims of having a minor role in her husband's fraud scheme could play against her.
The federal judge in the case tried to schedule a hearing for last Thursday on whether he should void her guilty plea. He apparently had doubts as to whether she was sincere in admitting to her knowing participation in the three-year, $30 million scheme that scandalized Bakersfield.
The judge ultimately canceled last week's hearing because he realized he lacked the authority to vacate her deal with prosecutors.
But a lawyer in the larger mortgage fraud case says Jennifer's pleas for leniency may have gone too far, and could end up lengthening her sentence.
"Based upon the documents filed with the court, it appears as though Jennifer Crisp is backtracking as to her involvement in the scheme to defraud," said Tony Capozzi, the Fresno attorney representing co-defendant Julie Farmer, the only one of 15 defendants in the case without a plea deal.
"As a consequence, (Jennifer) may not receive a reduction in the (sentencing) guidelines for acceptance of responsibility."
Jennifer's Fresno lawyer, Gary Huss, denied his client is backing out of her guilty plea, saying she has accepted "full responsibility" and that the two of them intend to proceed with sentencing March 31.
Beyond suggesting that Jennifer Crisp had a minimal role in the mortgage fraud, court documents submitted in preparation for Jennifer's sentencing shed new light on how the scheme allegedly worked behind the scenes.
The filings claim, for instance, that employees of the two companies David Crisp co-owned -- including people who were never named as defendants -- took pride in their forgery skills. The documents also recount the staff's mocking attitude toward some of the loans they received as part of the fraud scheme.
But the primary goal of Huss's filings is to argue that Jennifer had only a "minor role" that deserves a sentencing variance that would be "appropriate for her unlike many of the other core defendants involved in the case."
As it stands, she faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Crisp originally pleaded not guilty to five counts of mail fraud, two counts of wire fraud, two counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, and one count of conspiracy to launder money.
But late last year she took a deal with prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office, one that was mutually contingent on a guilty plea by David Crisp, who admitted to one count of conspiracy to commit bank, mail and wire fraud.
Documents filed on Jennifer's behalf say David, co-owner of the now-defunct Bakersfield firms Crisp & Cole Real Estate and Tower Lending, selected the properties he wanted to put in his wife's name.
Jennifer asserts her main mistake was wanting to help her husband's business, and trusting him and his employees.
"If anything, she was naive," reads a filing made Feb. 6 in the U.S. District Court in Fresno.
"The reality of this fraudulent scheme is that it was intended to benefit (her husband's) business and satisfy the egos of David, Carl (Cole, David's business partner), and Julie Farmer," the document states. "The goal was not to benefit Jennifer."
But benefit she did.
Prosecutors have pointed out that David Crisp's business provided her with the use of at least four luxury cars: a Mercedes Benz S-Class 550, Mercedes Benz R-Class Wagon, a BMW 750 Li and a BMW 745 Li.
There were also expensive fashion items and jewelry from Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, as well as trips to Las Vegas and elsewhere, according to filings by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
But her lawyer says Jennifer never appreciated the luxury mortgage fraud afforded her.
"Jennifer was not comfortable with the lifestyle David brought into their home and she did not enjoy a lot of the lavish things that others seemed to feed on in this case," Huss wrote in a recent court filing.
Prosecutors responded to Jennifer's request for leniency with a forceful recap of the evidence against her.
They allege she applied for and received loans to buy or refinance multiple Bakersfield homes, and that she fraudulently listed her income on mortgage applications as $22,500 per month as owner of Jennifer Crisp Consulting.
Prosecutors say Jennifer went beyond written deceit. In a phone call with a mortgage underwriter, they say, she confirmed false information she had included in a loan application, thus verbalizing her fraud.
But Huss claims his client was never made aware of many details of the fraud, from how properties were tracked and payments made, to strategic conversations about how the larger scheme would be carried.
Accounts set up by Jennifer were later used by her husband and his staff to make mortgage payments without her knowledge, according to court filings.
Her lawyer also wrote his client "is not sophisticated enough" to understand the difference between her husband making payments on houses she was supposedly buying, as opposed to what she herself was committing to pay for.
Huss also argued that it's hard to distinguish what homes Jennifer Crisp intended to buy from what loan applications were made in her name without her knowledge.
She claims to have learned only recently that members of her husband's staff -- Farmer plus two other women not named as defendants -- forged signatures by tracing them over glass and lighting.
Farmer acknowledges having done many of the things prosecutors allege, but insists she never knew her activities were against the law. She is charged with eight counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to launder money and one count of bank fraud. Her trail is set to begin April 8.
Huss's filings on Jennifer's behalf also reference joking communications among employees of Crisp and Cole. They mention email discussions of "crappy loans" being approved by mortgage lenders.
"Jennifer was never a party to the joking communications and has never thought that this case being filed against her was funny," one court document states.
In cases where she does acknowledge signing paperwork in person, important information was sometimes "whited out" or filled in later without her knowledge, court filings state.
Contrary to claims by the prosecution, Huss claims Jennifer was not "recklessly indifferent" to the fraud going on around her.
Jennifer's lawyer ultimately requests in the court filings that the judge be lenient in the sentencing. Noting that his client has a 10-year-old son to care for, Huss asks O'Neill for a short prison term or let her serve part of her sentence outside prison along with community service.
"Some defendants use their children as somewhat of a shield at the time of sentencing and it may be tempting to think that in this sentence. But that would be incorrect," Jennifer's lawyer wrote.
"She was born as and always has been a passive quiet person who is naive and easily dominated or controlled by the will of others. ... Her sentence should reflect what kind of person she is, and what her true role was in this case."
Letters of support sent to the court by friends and family affirm Jennifer's kindness and love for her son.
"She is the best mother any child in this world could possibly ask for. She truly is an angel," wrote her brother-in-law, Charles Crisp. He added that he has never seen Jennifer curse or drink as an adult, "only devote her life to goodness."
Some of the letters assert that Jennifer did not realize the impact of her criminal actions.
"I will not sit here and act naive," her cousin, Zack Grasmick, wrote. "I believe that (there) needs to be a punishment, simply because there are laws for a reason. But I can honestly say that Jennifer's only guilt is in the fact that she was ignorant to the crimes that she committed."
Jennifer's mother, Leslie Sluga, has pleaded guilty along with her husband to taking part in the scheme and is scheduled to be sentenced March 31. She wrote a letter asking the judge to keep in mind the well-being of Jennifer's son, Aiden, who was 4 when the FBI raided the family's home in 2007.
"He is very aware of how his life is about to change if both his parents go to prison," Sluga wrote. "It has been very hard as a grandparent to see their grandson at this age have anxiety attacks and be afraid to go to sleep by himself."
In her own letter to the judge, Jennifer said she is "willing to take full responsibility for the decisions that were made by me."
Recounting David's hard work before and after partnering with Cole, she wrote about trusting David and his staff to handle many family affairs.
"I became the wife that allowed her husband to make all the decisions in the family without communication because I thought that would make things easier and I continued to be the stay at home housewife and let his office control our life," she wrote.
Regarding the loan applications she signed, Jennifer wrote, "I should have been proactive and found out if this was truly OK to do and not taken someone's word for it before signing important paperwork."
"It wasn't until close to the time the FBI raided us that I realized there was a problem."
Also filed with the court is a letter from David Crisp. In it, he accepts responsibility for using his wife's good credit to buy homes without her fully understanding what was going on.
"I'm the reason she stands before you accepting her role in this case," David wrote. "It is by my actions and her trust in me why she is in this mess."