CINCINNATI – A federal judge cited the defendant’s “sheer greed” and damage to his family on Wednesday as she ordered an eight-year prison sentence for a Lexington accountant who spent most of six years as a fugitive in an $8.7 million embezzlement case roaming the Appalachian Trail.
U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott went above even the prosecutor’s recommended sentence for James T. Hammes, 54. She pointed to the large amount of money taken in a scheme that went on more than a decade and evidence that he had planned to assume a new identity and flee if it was discovered.
She also pointed to the impact on his loved ones, including his daughter, his second wife, and another daughter from an extramarital affair.
Dlott said Hammes had caused “more collateral damage” than she had ever seen in a case before her.
Hammes’ attorney, Zenaida Lockard, indicated she will pursue an appeal of the sentence, calling it “unreasonable” under sentencing guidelines. Hammes, wearing an orange-and-white jail jumpsuit with his long hair pulled back in a ponytail and beard neatly trimmed, acknowledged that he had been selfish much of his life, but he told the judge he has changed and will continue to make changes regardless of the sentence.
“I am terribly sorry,” Hammes said.
He pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud, after the FBI arrested him at a Damascus, Va., inn during the town’s annual Trail Days festival.
“No one can run from justice forever,” Benjamin C. Glassman, acting U.S. attorney, said after the sentencing. “Today his lies were punished.”
Dlott also sentenced him to three years’ probation and ordered him to continue making restitution – nearly $6.7 million to his employer and $1 million to its insurer.
Hammes’ attorneys said he has no criminal past and spent years contemplating his wrongdoing on the trail that winds more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. Lockard introduced into evidence a photo of Hammes sitting on rocks along a river, appearing deep in thought.
“He is traveling on a road to redemption,” Lockard said.
His hiking partner of some four years, Teri “Hopper” Hanavan, told the judge she credited the man she knew as “Bismarck” with helping guide her back into her faith as they attended church services along the trail.
But prosecutors said Hammes stole an identity and lived off embezzled money until a fellow hiker tipped authorities after seeing his case featured on the CNBC series “American Greed.”
Hammes, a Milwaukee native who grew up in Springfield, Illinois, was the Lexington-based controller for the southern division of Cincinnati-based 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.
Jane Ryan, of Springfield, Ill., Hammes’ former sister-in-law, wrote Dlott describing the emotional damage he had done to her niece by disappearing without a word. She said Hammes’ daughter was “depressed and devastated.”
Ryan also brought up again the family’s suspicions that the death of Hammes’ first wife, Joy, in a 2003 Lexington house fire wasn’t by accident, as investigators concluded.
“Eight years seems disappointing, though we are glad he is in prison now rather than hiking and enjoying life,” she told The Associated Press. “He has given me and my entire family a lifetime sentence of heartache, and in the end, no amount of time in prison can take that away.”