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GULLIXSON: A tale of two crimes and punishments

Gary T. Armitage in court Monday in Redding.

ANDREAS FUHRMANN / Record Searchlight
Published: Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 6:05 a.m.

This is a story about two men who stole from Sonoma County residents. Neither physically hurt anyone, but both had multiple victims and caused a great deal of pain.

One stole jewelry. The other stole life savings.

I'll let you guess which one got the heavier sentence.

On Sept. 14, 2010, 32-year-old Jason Perry Cassell, a Santa Rosa resident with a history of mental illness and drug abuse, started a crime spree that, according to all concerned, he would deeply regret.

He began breaking into homes. Bennett Valley homes. The most affluent ones he could find.

According to the court record, he would make sure no one was home — often with the help of a spotter — and then force his way in, often by slamming his shoulder against a door. He would ransack bedrooms and bathrooms, usually taking jewelry and other items.

In all, he broke into nine homes over a 30-day period to support his addiction to Oxycontin and other drugs. The losses, according to police reports, were mostly between $1,000 and $5,500. Two families suffered more than $50,000 in losses combined.When he was finally arrested on Oct. 25, 2010, he confessed, told investigators how he committed his crimes, where he tried to fence the stolen property and indicated he was relieved to be caught.

“He expressed deep remorse for the crimes and their effect on his victims,” court records note. “He said he was 'technically homeless,' and unemployed, having lost a job at a winery due to his drug abuse.”

The presentencing report suggested probation should be considered given that the crimes were “in part due to an underlying substance abuse issue.”

When Cassell was sentenced on June 7, 2011, he was ordered to pay his victims $66,000 for damage to homes, unrecovered items, etc. As for his sentence, we will get to that in a moment.

Here's the story of criminal No. 2: Gary T. Armitage, a former Santa Rosa investment adviser, did not enter homes by force. He came in through the front door, sweet-talking his way into the lives of others. And it wasn't a one-month spree. His theft occurred over the course of years.

As far back as 1997, he, along with Jeffrey Guidi, co-owners of the Santa Rosa investment company AGA Financial, and James Koenig of Redding reportedly began selling construction and real estate projects throughout California. They promised safe, secure, low-risk investments that would bring investors returns of 12 percent or better.

Armitage and his partners didn't just use spotters. They organized investment planning seminars to lure investors who entrusted them with sums ranging from $50,000 to $1 million. Some invested entire retirement portfolios and savings accounts. Some sold rental property and refinanced so they could invest. Buoyed by the funds, these men created 55 business ventures over the course of 10 years.

When some of their ventures started to cave due to poor management or because they were largely bogus operations, they doubled-down, trying to attract more investors to cover their losses and to fund their lavish lifestyles. They bought fancy cars and a Lear jet. At one point, Armitage owned a luxury house in Healdsburg and an 80-acre castle-like estate near Redding.

But it all began to unravel in April 2007, when, under a mountain of debt, the businesses started to close and investors started blowing the whistle. Armitage, Guidi and Koenig were all arrested in May 2009.

In peeling back the onion, investigators concluded it was one of the largest Ponzi schemes in the history of California, with some 2,000 victims statewide. The total loss: $200 million.

On Monday, the day Armitage was sentenced, so many victims wanted to speak that the judge inexplicably limited verbal remarks to just those who invested in the last two or so years of the scam. But there was still plenty of venom to be heard.

“You are a shameful, repulsive excuse for a human being,” one man told Armitage.

Here's another factor. Armitage never expressed any remorse. No public apology. Nothing. In the end, there wasn't even any restitution ordered. Judge Bradley Boeckman of the Shasta County Superior Court said there was no point to restitution because Armitage was bankrupt.

So here's the epilogue. One of these men received a 10-year prison sentence. With time served and good behavior, he is expected to be released in less than four. The other was sentenced to 12 years and eight months in prison, with a requirement that he must serve at least 85 percent of the time.

If you guessed that Armitage received the lighter of the two sentences, you win.

Few of us can claim to be experts on what is a fair criminal sentence. But we all have a nose for what is unbalanced. And to me, this doesn't pass the smell test.

After an appeal, Cassell's sentence was reduced to 10years, but given the mandatory-service requirements, the earliest he will be out is 2020.

Was Cassell's sentence too heavy? Probably. Particularly in light of the fact that his accomplices got probation, and in light of other sentences that have been doled out in recent months. The man found guilty in the SRJC rape case was sentenced April 3 to three years. The unlicensed driver who hit and killed a 4-year-old boy in a Santa Rosa crosswalk in 2011 and then drove away was sentenced to four years.

On the other hand, was Armitage's sentence too light? Absolutely. Even the probation officer who wrote the presentencing report in the Armitage case was confused as to why he received such a “generous disposition.”

What is it about our judicial system that makes it so much easier to hand down a harsh sentence to a 32-year-old who stole things as opposed to a 62-year-old white-collar criminal who stole livelihoods?

I don't know. But here's the odd part about it all. One of the reasons the Sonoma County judge gave for not giving Cassell probation or a lighter sentence, is because he said his burglaries showed “planning and sophistication.”

If only he had been unsophisticated — like Armitage.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director of The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.

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