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Ventura Man Pleads Guilty in Fraud Case

Dennis Willingham admits bilking investors out of $3 million in a securities scheme. His wife is already serving 15 years on related charges.

September 25, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

A Ventura man has pleaded guilty to bilking 20 investors out of more than $3 million in an Oxnard strawberry farming and brokerage business he operated with his wife for six years until their arrest last December, prosecutors announced Friday.

Dennis Willingham, 46, pleaded guilty Thursday to 20 felony counts of securities fraud and selling faulty securities.

His wife, Brenda Paak Willingham, 52, pleaded guilty in May to two dozen felonies, admitting that she cheated 37 investors out of $5 million.

She is serving a 15-year sentence in state prison. He remains in Ventura County Jail and faces up to 12 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 3, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Dobroth.

Beginning in 1998, the Willinghams asked friends and acquaintances to invest in Sunshine Fresh Produce of Oxnard and Willingham Farms in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The Willinghams told prospective investors that they owned a bustling strawberry farm near Santa Maria, but actually subleased 200 acres near the city, beginning in 1999, Dobroth said.

"This couple solicited investments in their companies by telling investors things that weren't true and by not telling investors things they should have told them," Dobroth said.

The Willinghams told investors that their companies were making lots of money and promised 10% returns on investments of a few weeks and 100% returns on investments of one year.

Dennis Willingham masterminded the operation and Brenda Willingham was the primary salesperson, prosecutors said.

The Willinghams are black, and many of their investors were African American.

"Word spread by word of mouth," Dobroth said. "People involved included those in their church and in the African American community. But word of this 'investment opportunity' grew exponentially. We have investors who don't know Dennis from Adam."

Investors lived as far away as Georgia and Florida and as near as Oxnard and Santa Barbara. Dobroth estimated that hundreds of people invested; one person invested more than $1 million and some invested as little as $2,000.

The couple were able to run the scheme for so long because some investors received some return on their investments.

Those cited in Dennis Willingham's case got back about one-third of their $3-million investment, prosecutors said.

"But the cash nature of the transactions made it extremely difficult to track exactly where the money was going," Dobroth said.

The individual investor who lost $1 million also told friends of the opportunity, the prosecutor said, and they contacted the Willinghams seeking to make investments.

In individual and business bankruptcy petitions filed in 2001, the couple listed $36 million in debt and 600 unsecured creditors.

"There are two adages that come into play here," Dobroth said. "One is that hindsight is 20-20 and the other is: If it sounds too good to be true it probably is."

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