- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

CINCINNATI (AP) - Attorneys for a Kentucky accountant who embezzled $8.7 million before going on the run said Friday that hiking the Appalachian Trail for six years as a fugitive put him on “the road to redemption.”

A sentencing memorandum filed by lawyers for James T. Hammes seeks a three-year prison sentence. That’s less than half of what the federal government wants.

U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott will sentence Hammes on June 22 in Cincinnati. He pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud and agreed to pay back millions diverted from his employer, a Pepsi-Cola bottler.

The U.S. attorney’s office seeks more than seven years in prison, citing the large amount Hammes embezzled and the fact that he fled.

His attorneys say he has no criminal past, is remorseful and has spent years contemplating his wrongdoing on the popular trail that winds more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine.

“He sought refuge in the foothills and mountains of the Trail, in an attempt to sort through a sordid past,” stated the memo submitted by Zenaida Lockard, an assistant public defender in Cincinnati representing Hammes, and Federal Public Defender Deborah L. Williams.

At times lyrical as it discusses the spiritual journey and “rediscovery” the picturesque trail offers hardy hikers, the memo says: “Each day spent out in Mother Nature shed light on Jim’s dark past; and as he began to understand the flaws of his character, he moved one step closer to personal redemption.”

The memo said he has simplified his life and become “a changed man.” It also said Hammes suspects he long suffered from depression and hopes to get mental health treatment.

Prosecutors say Hammes, now 53, lied and stole on a monthly basis in a scheme he carried on for more than a decade, misleading everyone from his managers to his family with crimes motivated by “sheer greed.” They say he prepared a complex escape plan that allowed him to stay on the lam for years.

FBI agents arrested Hammes a year ago at an inn in Damascus, Virginia, during an annual Appalachian Trail festival. The inn’s operator and fellow hikers said he was known by the trail name Bismarck and described him as affable and popular on the trail.

Hammes, a Milwaukee native, was the Lexington-based controller for the southern division of G&J; Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Inc. The FBI said Hammes created a sham vendor account, wrote checks to it, then moved the deposits into his own accounts.

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Follow Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell

For some of his other recent stories: https://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-sewell

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