The Maricopa County Attorney's Office will "definitely" still pursue a 22-year-old, $7.5 million restitution case against former gold mogul Sherman Unkefer, an official told us last week.
Since our last update about Unkefer in August, the Arizona Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the trial courts. In other words, Unkefer's side won that round. Unkefer, who often spent time between homes in Scottsdale and southern California, still didn't return our call.
Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the county attorney's office, said a new trial won't be necessary in the case, "just a hearing," which hasn't been scheduled yet by the court.
Unkefer is the former head of North American Coin and Currency, which was one of the largest gold-selling firms in the United States back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At one point, the firm traded precious metals to the tune of about $1 billion a year.
Unkefer mismanaged the company and defrauded investors as the ship ran aground. Thousands of average people who had bought gold and silver from North American discovered their metal holdings had been raided by Unkefer, who later admitted in court to "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
The company was reorganized in a bankruptcy, and Unkefer fled to California, where he applied his money-making talent to pre-paid legal services. By the time he was indicted and captured as a fugitive in 1988, he'd already gotten back on his feet, financially.
Meanwhile, the North American victims suffered. Officials later determined that more than 4,200 people were owed more than $16 million in restitution, but the law capped the possible repayment to $7.5 million.
In 1989, Unkefer was sentenced to ten years in prison by Superior Court Judge Gloria Ybarra, who -- according to court transcripts -- told him she was making an example of him. Too many white-collar criminals avoided prison, she noted, and besides, Unkefer didn't seem to care about his victims. Although Unkefer had told the court "many times" that he wanted to pay back the North American customers, "I have not heard of one single victim who has received one cent from you," Ybarra told him.
Unkefer served eight years. Since he was released, he made another fortune as the top seller of "Xango Juice." The Food and Drug Administration ordered the company four years ago to stop making claims that the stuff could help with a variety of ailments, from gum disease to cancer.
As New Times uncovered in a comprehensive article about the gold industry in July, Unkefer is once again back in the precious metals business -- or at least, his deceased wife's trust is. The trust, of which Unkefer's a beneficiary, provided investment money to Republic Monetary Exchange in Phoenix.
Unkefer also has occasionally provided business services to Republic. (Clark's lawyer says those services have been uncompensated.) Unkefer's old buddy and business partner Jim Clark, Republic Monetary's CEO, once served time in prison in a separate case. Like Unkefer, Clark also failed to pay restitution to victims, despite his new firm's apparent success.
While nobody is holding Clark accountable, it's a different case for Unkefer. More than 12 years after Unkefer had been released from prison, the state began pressing him for the $7.5 million.
Last year, a trial court ruled that Unkefer owed the money. He appealed the ruling, saying the 12-year delay was unreasonable. On September 21, the case was sent back to the trial courts for another look.
Yet in reading the appellate court's decision, we don't get the impression that Unkefer and his lawyers at Perkins, Coie, Brown & Bain found it reason enough to break open the champagne. The judges found that the lower court hadn't considered a law that requires the the restitution order to be filed within a reasonable time frame. But they also seem to give clear guidance in the case, stating that the delay of 12 years to file the new order was not, by itself, unreasonable.
Could it be a coincidence that Unkefer announced in October that he was planning a major expansion for XanGo -- in Brazil?
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.