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Kauai scammer killed in car wreck on day of his sentencing


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POSTED: Friday, May 15, 2009

James Lull, former Kauai mortgage broker who was due in federal court in Honolulu yesterday for sentencing in a $30 million Ponzi scheme, was killed when his vehicle plummeted down a 200-foot canyon near Yakima, Wash., the Washington State Patrol reported.

;[Preview]  Kauai Con Man Fugitive Found Dead
 

Washington state affiliates and family members confirmed that 60-year-old James Lull, a con man convicted of stealing roughly $30 million, was found dead after his white plunged off a cliff.

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A state policeman said there are indications that Lull intentionally drove off a cliff.

Lull, 60, who admitted swindling people in Hawaii and on the mainland, was wanted by the FBI for failing to appear in federal court.

His lawyer, federal public defender Peter Wolff, said Lull told him Wednesday that he would arrive in Hawaii from Washington at least an hour before his sentencing hearing at 2 p.m.  yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway issued a bench warrant for Lull’s arrest when he failed to appear in court and rescheduled the hearing for next month.

Wolff said today that he didn’t know why Lull didn’t show up until receiving a message at about 4:30 p.m. about his death from a U.S. attorney who heard it from an FBI special agent. He said he was “surprised but not shocked.”

“I know he was concerned about the claims made that he was hiding assets, which he said wasn’t true, but he also recognized nobody was likely to believe him when he told the truth about something both because of the fraud he committed and acknowledged he committed,” Wolff said.

Lull was living in Kirkland, Wash., with his mother and had been visiting friends in the Yakima area, Sgt. Ed McAvoy of the Washington State Patrol said by telephone today.

At about 1:14 p.m. yesterday, Washington time, a semi-truck driver reported seeing a white vehicle at the bottom of large canyons northeast of the Redmond Memorial bridges near the town of Selah in south central Washington, McAvoy said.

He said a state trooper climbed down the canyon and found Lull dead behind the wheel of his 2007 Ford Sport-Trac. He  was wearing a seatbelt. No one else was in the pickup truck.

Acceleration marks were found and there were other indications that the driving appeared to be intentional when it went off the roadway, McAvoy said.

Investigators said they believe Lull was traveling westbound on I-82 when his vehicle left the road and drove across an open field and through a freeway fence another 50 to 100 feet off the edge of the canyon wall.

 

McAvoy said canyon has several interstate bridges crossing sheer cliffs ranging from 200 to 400 feet deep in spots. The canyon has a dry riverbed and rock outcroppings, he said.

Lull’s vehicle plunged off a 200-foot cliff before hitting the canyon floor. The trooper who climbed down the cliff said the vehicle was cold and investigators believe the crash occurred 12 to 48 hours before the truck driver spotted it.

The canyon is within Yakima Firing Center, a military training base. Medics and equipment were flown in by a helicopter from the base but the winds picked up and the helicopter was unable to go back into the canyon so Lull’s body was hiked out by rescue workers using winches and lifts, McAvoy said. “It was a big effort and involved a lot of personnel because of the ruggedness of the terrain. It took extensive time.”

 The body was examined by the Yakima County coroner’s office and sent to Madigan Army Hospital on the west side of the mountains in the Tacoma area for autopsy, McAvoy said.

Lull was facing 10 to 12-1⁄2 years in prison for wire fraud. He was also facing new allegations of hiding assets from the trustee handling his bankruptcy.

The court’s pretrial services office sent Mollway a memo containing allegations that Lull had recent dealings in diamonds.

Wolff said Lull “had long ago accepted that he was going to serve a prison sentence. I guess he was concerned when the judge indicated she might sentence him higher than the guideline. He didn’t have any illusions about his offense or that he would have to serve a prison sentence for it.

“I think he was troubled by repeated allegations by the bankruptcy trustee that he hadn’t cooperated, which he didn’t think was accurate. He had filed bankruptcy and been examined several days in quite a hostile atmosphere by creditors and the trustee and the trustee’s lawyers. He gave depositions and turned over all the pieces of paper he had, over 6,000 pieces of paper, and gave them his computer.”

Lull was supposed to be sentenced last month, but Mollway rescheduled that hearing because the bankruptcy trustee and some of his victims said Lull was hiding valuable coins, expensive wines, pool cues and opals.

“I don’t really know but I don’t think there is much truth to that,” Wolff said. “But it’s hard to prove something when your credibility is injured by your own actions.”

Two of Lull’s  victims — Donnie and Mardi Maione — showed up for yesterday’s hearing.

They said they gave Lull $75,000 in August 2006 for what was supposed to be a short-term loan. The husband and wife said they had no reason not to trust Lull, whom they had known since 1995.

They lived on the same street, and Donnie Maione  said he purchased his first two homes with mortgages he obtained through Lull. At the time, Lull was Kauai branch manager of U.S. Financial Mortgage Corp. He said Lull even gave him short-term, unsecured loans so he could meet payroll for his contracting business.

Donnie Maione said he kept in frequent touch with Lull for three months after he gave him the $75,000, and at one of their meetings, he said, Lull pulled out a box containing more than 100 opals and asked him whether he wanted one for his wife. After that, he said, Lull disappeared, and the mortgage company told people Lull no longer worked there.

Star-Bulletin reporter Helen Altonn contributed to this report.