Even after pleading guilty to a dozen counts of fraud and money laundering, Nick Zegarac continued to write letters from jail to one of his victims, asking for his Social Security number.
Zegarac, 55, owes his victims more than $609,000, but it will be years before he is able to work to pay it off. He was sentenced Friday to seven years and three months in connection with an investment scheme involving the historic Pierce School Mall in the Village of East Davenport.
In a May indictment, Zegarac was accused of collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment money to renovate the former school into office space and condominiums. However, he used the money to pay his mortgage, gambling and medical expenses and to build a garage at his home, records show.
During his sentencing in federal court in Davenport, his brother-in-law, New York attorney Mitchell Epner, described family life with Zegarac as "a horrendous experience."
He said Zegarac took more than $100,000 from his late mother, who lived in East Moline.
In fact, the elder Zegarac was visiting Epner and his wife in New York and was preparing to return to the Quad-Cities, he said, when Zegarac called his mother and said he was filing for bankruptcy and would not be repaying her.
During a stopover at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Epner said, Zegarac's mother suffered a heart attack and died three days later. While his father was being treated for cancer, Epner testified, Zegarac sold his house "right out from under him."
Five others took the witness stand Friday, telling U.S. District Judge John Jarvey how they were victimized by Zegarac.
A federal investigator said Lee Fahy lost more than $150,000 he entrusted to Zegarac as investment money.
During his victim impact statement, Fahy said, "I would hope there would be restitution in this case. That was my life savings. I'm not a wealthy man."
Others said they have a considerably diminished ability to trust other people since becoming involved with Zegarac.
His attorney, David Treimer, said Zegarac deserved some break in sentencing, saying, "He did save the government a substantial amount of time," by pleading guilty. He added that his client already has been punished "by the Lord," given his poor health.
When it was Zegarac's time to speak, he said that characterizing his actions as a scam or scheme is "absolutely ridiculous," and said he was simply looking for "monetary help" for "realistic, real start-up companies."
When the judge pointed out Zegarac did not appear to be acknowledging his crimes, many of the 15 people in the gallery laughed or scoffed.
"This is a massive fraud," Jarvey said as he handed down the 87-month sentence, which was at the top of the sentencing range he was to consider.