An Evans businessman, whose victims say cloaked himself in Christianity to win their confidence, was sentenced Monday to five years in prison.
U.S. District Chief Judge William T. Moore Jr. imposed the maximum sentence possible and ordered Johnny Lee Hollis Jr. to pay his victims back $3.63 million.
Mr. Hollis pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. He convinced his victims that he was a legitimate financial adviser and guaranteed 6 to 20 percent returns on investments.
Elizabeth Walker met Mr. Hollis after she won $7.8 million in the Georgia lottery in 2000.
"He said he was ordained by God for a financial ministry," Ms. Walker told the judge Monday.
At his suggestion, she took the buyout from the lottery and entrusted $2.8 million to Mr. Hollis to invest. It's all gone now, she said.
Her family lost their home, vehicles, the ability to send their two children to college, and health insurance. They also owe $2 million in taxes, "and we don't have it," she said.
The Walker family was just one of many people Mr. Hollis cheated. Several came to watch Monday's hearing.
Many of Mr. Hollis' supporters came, too, including ministers and others who told the judge of Mr. Hollis' good deeds and character. They insisted Mr. Hollis could not have lost investors' money intentionally.
Mr. Hollis spoke of his desire to help people who were less fortunate and help people get off welfare.
"That's what this was all about," Mr. Hollis said of his investment business.
Mr. Hollis blamed the dot-com industry failure, the terrorist attacks and the drop in the economy for the investment loss.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen K. Marsh asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence, 60 months. Mr. Hollis continues to deny his responsibility for stealing widows' insurance money, children's college funds and victims' life savings, the prosecutor noted.
What Mr. Hollis did was the classic Ponzi scheme, Judge Moore said to those in the courtroom, especially Mr. Hollis' supporters.
He used people's money for himself, he lied to them and wrote bad checks to keep the scheme going, the judge said.
"Now all of these things are wrong, just as wrong as can be," he said.
He instructed Mr. Hollis to report to prison by 2 p.m. Nov. 6. The Federal Bureau of Prisons will decide in which prison Mr. Hollis will serve his time.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.