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Judge suspended 12-year prison sentence in lieu of five years of probation

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FARMINGTON – Bobby Willis was sentenced today to probation after he was convicted last month of embezzling funds from the New Mexico Title Co. and its sister escrow company.

Judge Louis DePauli ordered Willis to serve a 12-year prison sentence, but suspended that in lieu of five years of probation.

In imposing his sentence, DePauli said he took into consideration Willis’ lack of criminal history and his willingness to pay restitution. DePauli said Willis had also already served 14 months in prison awaiting adjudication, which was "no cake walk."

"The state would like me to believe that what you confessed to was just the tip of the iceberg,” DePauli said. "That underneath you have the heart and soul of a racketeer, as the state would say. And you stole millions, and you made it a profession. But I cannot conclude that."

Members of Willis' defense team said serving prison time would endanger their client's health.

DePauli said Willis’ reputation was tarnished as a result of the conviction.

"I think you are pretty much ruined in the eyes of the community," DePauli said. "If you fancied yourself a big shot, someone that should be looked up to — well, that is long gone."

The judge said if Willis violates the terms of his probation, he would be sentenced to the maximum 12 years.

DePauli also ordered Willis to pay a $15,000 fine, the maximum allowable.

Willis, 43, pleaded no contest in early March to two felony counts of embezzlement and admitted sufficient evidence existed to prove he stole $94,800 belonging to Damtech LLC and $20,000 from C3 Limited Partnership in December 2011. Both companies entrusted the funds to Willis’ escrow company as part of business dealings.

State prosecutor Zack Jones told DePauli the thefts irrevocably damaged the businesses and impacted their owners, Doug Damask and Fred Morrison. Jones said the men were going to use the money to expand their businesses.

"Mr. Damask’s business was set back irreparably," Jones said. "Mr. Morrison had given up hope that he would ever get his money back."

Neither man spoke at the hearing, but they each submitted letters to the judge.

The state requested that other alleged victims be allowed to testify at the hearing — a request the judge previously denied in a written court order and again on Tuesday.

Two alleged victims, Mike Atchison and Ronnie Garner, attended the sentencing hearing and have civil cases pending against Willis.

"Mr. Garner and others — Mr. Atchison — they are going to have to prove their claims in civil court, I guess, because they are not going to be proven here today," DePauli said.

After the hearing, Garner expressed his dismay that he and other victims were not allowed to testify at the hearing.

“Absolutely, the judge allowed a miscarriage of justice,” he said.

He provided The Daily Times a letter, dated March 12, he said he sent the judge. In the letter, Garner states Willis stole $2.65 million from him and $765,000 from his mother's estate through a fraudulent investment.

"Mr. Willis' methods are similar to another famous Ponzi-scheme felon who also left his victims destitute, Bernie Madoff," Garner writes. "This court should note that the Federal Judge of Bernie Madoff did not hesitate to apply sequential sentences that totaled more than 100 years, thus ensuring that Mr. Madoff would die in prison."

Defense attorneys Joshua Boone and Bob Cooper argued a lengthy prison sentence would endanger Willis' ailing health. According to a sentencing memorandum filed by the defense, Willis has heart problems and suffered multiple "mini-strokes" while he was jailed at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

He is partially paralyzed on his left side and is legally blind, the memorandum states.

"There is no one in this courtroom that wants to live a day in his life right now," Cooper said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.

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