Embezzlement suspect has checkered past | VailDaily.com

Embezzlement suspect has checkered past

Veronica Whitney

Special to the DailyBrandon Outlaw

By the time District Attorney Mark Hurlbert offered Outlaw a plea deal on charges of embezzling local homeowners fees, Outlaw had been convicted of one felony and three misdeameanor offenses in Oklahoma. When Hurlbert offered the plea in October, he said it didn’t include prison because this was Outlaw’s first felony offense.

But before an Eagle County judge earlier this month rejected the no prison portion of the deal, Hurlbert learned this was incorrect: in May 1994 Outlaw was convicted of a sexual battery charge in Oklahoma.

Outlaw, 31, faces a trial in May in Eagle County on theft charges. He is accused of embezzling $700,000 in condo fees from more than 400 Vail Valley residents.

“There’s a hole in our legal system,” said Russ Johnson, an Avon private investigator hired by one of the alleged embezzlement victims to do a background check on Outlaw. “The first thing you do when you do a background check is see where somebody has been. This makes you wonder if they are checking people out when they put them on trial.”

In 2002, Johnson said he gave the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office information on Outlaw’s previous felony conviction. Johnson now questions if the Sheriff’s Office failed to inform the District Attorney of Outlaw’s past criminal convictions.

“It seems there are some communication problems,” Johnson said.

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Surfing the Web

Johnson said he found about the sexual assault conviction on the Internet and went to see Doug Winters, a detective with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office who was investigating the local charges.

When Hurlbert offered Outlaw the plea – which included restitution – he said he didn’t know of the felony conviction. Although Hurlbert pushed for the deal until the last minute, District Court Judge Tom Moorhead, upon advice of a probation officer who recommended a six-year prison sentence for Outlaw, finally rejected the plea.

“We thought (Outlaw) had been convicted on a misdemeanor,” Hurlbert said after a Dec. 22 sentencing hearing where Outlaw withdrew his guilty plea. “Our (National Crime Information Center) printout said he had been convicted on a misdemeanor sex crime.”

Johnson said he can’t understand why the prosecutors didn’t have the correct information.

“They should have been able to find out in a few minutes – I got it relatively easy,” said Johnson. “I don’t know if there is a communication problem. I don’t know if they took me seriously. I would think a part of the investigation is checking your suspect.”

Winters said he doesn’t know why prosecutors didn’t know of Outlaw’s criminal past.

“I don’t know how that came about,” Winters said. “When I filed my case, we ran a criminal history. I knew of (Outlaw’s) status. And I remember that Russell Johnson talked to me and so did Detective Mike Leake of Avon Police because (Outlaw) hadn’t registered as a sex offender.”

Outlaw turned himself in to Eagle County authorities in July 2002 after a six-month investigation of the embezzlement charges. Winters said he passed everything to prosecutors during the discovery phase of the case, including various police reports.

“It’s up to them to read it,” Winters said. “We ran a criminal history and we provided that to the D.A.’s office. Our discovery would have included the felony offense.”

A pattern of conduct?

Winters said he gave information to prosecutors by the end of the summer of 2002. That was months before Hurlbert replaced former District Attorney Mike Goodbee and on the eve of a period of high turnover among prosecutors in District Attorney’s Office.

When he learned of the plea offer, Winters said he was taken by surprise.

“I was surprised but I didn’t call (prosecutors),” he said.

Knowing of Outlaw’s previous sexual battery felony conviction may have made a difference in the plea deal, Hurlbert said.

“Or maybe not,” Hurlbert said. “It may have ended up with more county jail time. I was looking to get restitution to the victims – and by putting him in prison, you don’t get that.”

The fact that Outlaw’s previous crime was so different from the one he is accused of now in Eagle County also would have been important when he made his decision on the plea, Hurlbert said.

“If we have something that shows a pattern of conduct, you treat that person harsher,” Hurlbert said. “His previous crime was serious, but completely different from the charges he faces in Eagle County.”

Still, Hurlbert said, he may have underestimated Outlaw’s criminal history.

“The judge said no to my plea bargain, so I might have done things differently in the case,” he said. “But I was going after the restitution.”

The high turnover in prosecutors earlier this year also may have contributed to the confusion, Hurlbert said.

“Any time you don’t have consistency it can potentially hurt a case,” Hurlbert said.

“But we haven’t lost anything yet,” he added. “The case is going to trial and if (Outlaw) is convicted, he could end up in prison for a maximum of 36 years.”

Before offering a new plea bargain, Hurlbert said he would need to talk to Outlaw’s alleged victims.

“The judge has made it clear that we need something that includes prison,” he said.

In the meantime, Oklahoma police are holding on to Outlaw’s passport, Hurlbert said.

Private investigator Johnson, who has dealt with similar cases, recommended employers hire a screening agency to do background checks on potential employees.

“(Outlaw) seemed like an nice, likable guy, with a lot of things going for him,” said Johnson, who used to work out at Outlaw’s gym in Avon.

At a glance

Outlaw’s criminal file

Convictions

– Aiding in a misdeameanor (misdeameanor). Convicted January 1993; District Court, Payne County, Okla.

Original charge: Unlawful manufacturing of an Oklahoma driver’s license (felony).

– Misrepresentation of age (misdeameanor). Convicted January 1993; District Court, Tulsa County, Okla.

Original charge: Displaying a counterfeit driver’s license (felony).

– Obstructing an officer (misdeameanor). Convicted May 1994; District Court, Tulsa County, Okla.

Original charge: bribing an officer (felony).

– Sexual battery (felony). Convicted May 1994; District Court, Tulsa County, Okla.

– Assault and battery (misdeameanor). Convicted April 1998; District Court, Tulsa County, Okla.

Still pending

– Eagle County District Court: Two counts of theft, one count of unauthorized use of a financial transaction device, and one count of forgery – all felonies. He is also charged with misdemeanor sexual offense for not registering in Eagle County as a convicted sexual offender.

– District Court, Tulsa County: Two counts of trafficking in illegal drugs (felony).

Source: The Oklahoma State Courts Network

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.