- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A pastor who admitted bilking $3.3 million from at least 18 mostly elderly investors was ordered Wednesday to spend seven years in federal prison and repay the victims, many having described in detail how the scheme plunged them or their parents into financial ruin.

Jim Staley, 40, appeared to hold back tears and at times wiped his nose with tissue while apologizing to his victims in the courtroom’s standing-room-only gallery, insisting that “I wish I could look at them in the face, but I can’t.” He pledged to make full restitution because “my faith requires me to do so.”

But the seeming show of contrition didn’t sway U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, who credited the married father of six as being a devoted family man and pastor with no previous legal blemishes, but remarked, “this is the first time I’ve heard remorse from Mr. Staley.”

When hearing the prison term, Staley slumped forward in his chair and lowered his head.

Webber noted that his observations of body language of many of the onlookers suggested that “if they had the opportunity to attack Mr. Staley they would do that.” So Webber said he had called for beefed-up security to keep the throng separated from Staley, who was allowed to remain free on bond until he is told to what prison he must report.

Federal prosecutors allege Staley, who was unregistered in Missouri to sell securities, earned more than $570,000 in commissions while selling investment products he often claimed carried minimal risk and yielded large, guaranteed returns, in some cases 30 to 40 percent.

Staley’s attorney has insisted the fraud was unrelated to Staley’s clergy work, though prosecutors said some victims invested with him because he was a “nice religious man,” and that clergy by nature could be trusted.

Yet in many cases, Staley wound up wiping out those investors’ life savings. During Thursday’s hearing, victims or their survivors - for privacy, all identified in court only by their initials - called Staley everything from “insidious” to “disgusting and sickening.”

One told the judge that Staley “is slick, manipulative and deceitful” in stealing nearly $600,000 from her but reimbursing her just $407, meaning “at this rate I should be (finally) compensated for my losses when I’m 5,800 years old.” Others described being socked by huge tax liabilities and penalties linked to their cashing out of annuities and other investments, then giving those proceeds to Staley. In a letter, another victim likened Staley’s wrongdoing to “a con game that used God to cloak his evil.”

Diana Collins, a federal prosecutor, told the judge that although the state in 2011 ordered Staley to pay $2.9 million in restitution, he never demonstrated a willingness to abide by it. Staley, who was making more than $120,000 as pastor and has lived for free in a million-dollar home rented by his church, has repaid just $1,950, including only $50 this year, in May.

That reimbursement rate, Webber agreed, indicates Staley “has very little interest in making restitution.”

Staley called himself overzealous and lamented he should have done his homework about the investments he pitched.

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