RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After hearing tearful testimony from several people whose life savings were stolen, a federal judge sentenced a former Texas businessman to 60 years in prison Wednesday for his role in a $100 million life insurance scam that claimed more than 800 victims in three dozen states and Canada.
A Richmond jury in June convicted Adley Abdulwahab of Spring, Texas, on 15 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering.
Abdulwahab, 36, was one of the principals of companies called A&O that used investor funds to buy life insurance policies from individuals at less than face value. Investors were supposed to be paid when the insured died, but A&O's partners spent the money on lavish lifestyles instead of safeguarding the investments and paying premiums. Policies lapsed, and investors lost their money.
"They were people who built their dreams by hard work — real hard work — and those dreams have been stripped from every one of these investors," U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne said.
Given a chance to address the court before sentencing, Abdulwahab said "I do feel for the investors" but remained largely defiant. He suggested the value of insurance policies was incorrectly calculated, said prosecutors had declined to meet with him during the investigation, blamed a co-defendant for encouraging him to join A&O, and said he had nothing to do with obtaining Whitaker's investment.
Among the victims was Paula Higdon Whitaker of Magnolia, Texas, whose life savings of $1 million helped finance mansions, fancy cars, expensive jewelry, resort vacations and other luxuries for A&O's leaders. Whitaker, a teacher and counselor, said she worked as many as three full-time jobs at a time over 40 years of frugal living to build a nest egg to help her only son, who had medical problems.
"I earned money the old-fashioned way — I worked for it," a weeping Whitaker testified. "That's why this is such a horrendous and difficult thing for me."
After her son Ryan died, she planned to use the A&O investment to fund a charitable foundation in his memory. Then she learned that A&O was a scam, and all her money was gone.
"It's been four years, seven months and 28 days since I lost my son and I cry every day because I can't leave the legacy for him that I wanted," she said. "It was like taking Ryan away from me again."
Therese Giger of Naperville, Ill., said her husband spent the last few months of his life worrying about their $500,000 A&O investment while undergoing cancer treatment.
"He was not only robbed of half a million dollars, but in his darkest hour he would be robbed of his peace of mind, which is unforgivable," Giger said.
She turned and looked through tears directly at Abdulwahab and said: "You are nothing more than a scoundrel and a glorified thief who deserves his day of reckoning."
Other victims talked about the embarrassment of losing their life savings to a fraud and the anguish of seeing a lifelong goal of a comfortable retirement vanish.
"What you heard today was a small fragment of the misery you perpetuated," Payne told Abdulwahab, calling his attention to a stack of letters the court had received from A&O's victims.
Payne said Abdulwahab was responsible for spreading lies about A&O's size, record of success and business practices — all intended to talk people out of their money.
"This defendant has shown the capacity to lie, cheat and steal to make his life better with no regard for the impact on others," Payne said.
The judge gave Abdulwahab far less than the maximum 225 years prosecutors requested, but Whitaker and Giger said they were satisfied that Abdulwahab likely will spend the rest of his life in prison.
"I think justice was served for the victims," Giger said.
U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride, who attended the sentencing, also said 60 years was a fair sentence.
"A case like this really puts a human face on financial crimes," he said. "These defendants stole life savings and retirement funds from hundreds of people who worked hard and played by the rules."
He noted that some of the investors worked their entire lives to save $50,000, while A&O's officers often rang up that much in credit card purchases in a month.
Abdulwahab was sentenced a day after Payne sentenced A&O co-founder Christian Allmendinger of Houston to 45 years for his role in the scheme. Five other conspirators, including A&O co-founder Brent Oncale of Houston, previously pleaded guilty and received lighter sentences.
A federal financial crimes task force in Virginia coordinated the investigaton. Several victims are from Virginia, and an A&O sales agent who pleaded guilty is from Richmond.