Citing her "devastating impact on a community that can least afford it," a judge Tuesday sentenced an Altadena woman to more than 12 years in federal prison for orchestrating a $17.8-million Ponzi scheme that preyed largely on middle-class African American investors.
Jeanetta M. Standefor, 40, pleaded guilty in September to operating a company that purportedly would earn investors money by salvaging properties that were on the brink of foreclosure.
She solicited millions in dollars from family members, friends, co-workers and others, many of them in the African American community in and around Pasadena. She funneled nearly $14 million back to early investors, paying some handsome profits to perpetuate the scheme.
But more than half of the 650 investors lost everything they put in, in some cases their life savings.
Standefor, meanwhile, spent $1.9 million on herself over a two-year period, remodeling two homes, taking trips, attending sporting events and buying jewelry and luxury cars.
"If that's not living large . . . I don't know what is," said Executive Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura-McCaffery, who prosecuted the case, which was investigated by the FBI.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson told Standefor that even though she was convicted of a so-called white-collar crime, she was just as guilty as if she'd "taken a gun out and held it to the victims' heads."
Standefor, dressed in a striped shirt and dark slacks, told Anderson that she truly intended to help people when she started her company, called Accelerated Funding Group, but that she got in over her head and, "I didn't ask for help."
"Anyone who knows me knows I'm extremely saddened and shamed," she said.
"We serve a God of second chances," Standefor added. "I would like a second chance."
Her attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Charles C. Brown, told Anderson that his client was a product of the foster care system "who worked her entire life to prove her worth to herself and others.
"She took shortcuts and started taking from Peter to pay Paul," Brown said. "And that's how we got here."
Brown pleaded with Anderson to put the crime in perspective and show leniency in his sentence.
"She is not a serial killer. She is not a drug dealer. This is not a person who needs to be thrown in jail and locked up to learn her lesson," he said.
Half a dozen victims who spoke before Anderson imposed his sentence took a harsher view of the defendant.
"Jeanetta actually financially murdered a lot of people," said 66-year-old William Sullivan, who said he lost $140,000 that he hoped would earn him enough money that he would be able to retire from his job as a pharmacist and focus on an AIDS education effort in the African American community.
Sullivan, who is white, added, "I'll never be able to earn my money back."
Another investor, Margaret Fong, said the $150,000 she lost has forced her to work 14-to-16-hour days in an effort to make ends meet. She said she works during the day as a kindergarten teacher, then tutors children on nights and weekends.
"I will be in a financial prison because it will take me 13 years to recover the money I lost," she said.
Gregory Hoyte, who did not say how much money he lost, told the judge, "The violation is not just in money, but in trust. She befriended people before she defrauded them."
Shortly after Anderson imposed his sentence, Brown urged him to reconsider, saying that the sentence was out of line with those handed down in similar cases across the country and that it seemed like African Americans get harsher sentences whether convicted of violent or white-collar crimes.
Anderson, who is black, cut the lawyer off.
"Not with me they don't," the judge shot back. "This isn't about being black."
In addition to the prison sentence, Standefor was ordered to pay nearly $9 million in restitution to her victims. She is scheduled to surrender March 11. There also is a pending Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Standefor's company.