A federal appeals court agreed Thursday with a former Dutch journalist who contended that he was improperly sentenced for his admitted part in a scheme that cheated thousands of European investors who paid millions of dollars for desolate American land at highly inflated prices.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the trial judge who accepted Rienk Kamer's guilty plea in late 1984 did indeed violate terms of a written plea agreement by adding a five-year probation period to the prison term and by ordering restitution to victims.
The appellate panel also found that U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr. of Los Angeles failed to ascertain whether the guilty plea was voluntary, whether Kamer fully understood the charges and whether there was factual basis for such a plea.
In failing to fully disclose to European buyers that the desert land was unsuitable for large-scale development, the judges said, he "may not have been motivated by an intent to deceive."
The prosecutor estimated at the time that Kamer, then 41, and co-defendant Bernard Whitney, then a 66-year-old Manhattan Beach attorney, defrauded at least 6,000 Europeans, selling them land that was worth little or nothing as development property for a total of up to $500 million.
Much of the land was in Antelope Valley and in Kern and San Bernardino counties, as well as in Texas and other states.
Whitney was sentenced to only six months in a community care center because he was seriously ill and the judge said prison would be "a sentence of death."
Kamer was sentenced to 16 months in prison, but he was given credit for 15 months already served and was ordered to return to the Netherlands immediately after his Feb. 11, 1985, release to face criminal fraud charges there.
The judge also ruled that Kamer could not re-enter the United States during the five-year probationary period without permission from the U.S. Department of Justice.
In partially supporting Kamer's appeal, the appeals court noted that there had been no mention of the probation period or restitution in the written plea-bargain, under which he agreed to admit guilt on three counts in return for a maximum sentence of three years, with credit for time served.
The appeals court did not agree, however, that Gadbois had violated the federal Speedy Trial Act by delaying the trial at the behest of a court-appointed attorney who needed more time to prepare for the complex case. Kamer subsequently won permission to defend himself with a public defender standing by.
There was no immediate indication from the U.S. attorney's office as to what action will be taken. Nor was there any information on what had happened to Kamer in the Netherlands, where he returned a year ago.