COLUMBIA, S.C. – Three men who called themselves the "3 Hebrew Boys," using the Biblical story of faith to create a scheme that prosecutors said fleeced thousands of people out of more than $80 million, will each spend decades in prison.
Timothy McQueen, 52, and Joseph Brunson, 47, were each sentenced to 27 years in prison and Tony Pough, 48, was sentenced to 30 years Tuesday after a daylong hearing. The three, all from Columbia, were convicted in November 2009 of 58 counts each of mail fraud, money laundering and other charges.
Prosecutors said the three men traveled to churches and other gatherings across the Southeast several years ago and spoke to soldiers near military outposts, preaching how faith and an investment in what they said were foreign currencies would at least double their money, wipe out credit card debt and pay off mortgages in months.
But authorities said less than $1 out of every $10,000 invested went into the foreign currency markets. A very small percentage did go to other investments, such as a limo service or small businesses, but most of it went for a fleet of expensive cars, vacation homes, pro football game luxury boxes and other high-end items.
The men remained defiant to the end, telling the judge that they still think they did nothing wrong. They said they were only trying to minister to people and planned to use some of the proceeds to feed hungry children and help the homeless.
"We know what we were called to do and we did that," McQueen said. "And we never have harmed anybody."
The men pointed to more than a dozen investors who stood when one of the defense attorneys asked who gave money to the men and still supported them.
But prosecutors said that's why it was so insidious — the men charmed people into the Ponzi scheme, and the only reason that investors didn't lose more was because the scam was discovered before it ran it course.
"They used their charisma to sell snake oil and they wrapped it in religion," prosecutor Mark Moore said. "They did it so well, some people still think they are on the up and up."
The men took their name, the "3 Hebrew Boys," from a Biblical tale about two believers in God who survived being tossed into a fiery furnace because of their faith.
In their pitch, the men told investors they had been through the flames of crushing debt and survived, thanks to their secret investments and the power of God.
But there was no rescue Tuesday as they stood before U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour and took a scathing rebuke for using money given to them to buy luxury items such as a nearly $1 million motor home and a private jet.
"Were they called to buy a Gulfstream jet?" Seymour asked. "Were they called to buy luxury cars and condos?"
The scheme also relied on race, said authorities, who estimate that at least 90 percent of the investors were black, as were all three defendants.
"We were going to help people. The actual process was to get people out of bondage," said Pough, whose sentence was three years longer than his co-defendants because he was convicted of a felony in a prior fraud scheme.
The sentences for the men were so harsh in part because the judge found they tried to obstruct justice at every turn, hiding cars and other assets from authorities and filing rambling, quizzical motions that called prosecutors "civilly dead." The motions also called their convictions "an act of war" and referred to the judge as "that woman."
The men were more respectful Tuesday, calling Seymour "your honor," but they continued to assert the court had no jurisdiction over them.
Several victims testified of ending up in financial ruin at the trial. But none of them was in court Tuesday, leaving friends, family and investors who blame the state and federal government for their losses to do the talking.
"I don't know how this thing got out of hand," investor Jeremiah Williams said. "But the intent was never to do harm. Maybe they were just ignorant about what they were trying to do."
Prosecutor Winston Holliday said the men knew exactly what they were doing and chose to take from the masses of poor people so they could live the life of the rich.
"What they learned by going through the flames," Holliday said, "was how to burn other people."