BEHIND THE NEWS: Feds say exec pilfered passport, but judge isn’t convinced

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Here’s a new twist in the already surreal saga of James T. O’Neal Jr., the Carmel native preparing to stand trial in Orlando on charges he swindled millions of dollars from executives here and in Florida.

In late September, a new court filing charges, the 59-year-old Orlando resident swiped his passport and the Social Security cards for himself and his family from a repository of court records in Indianapolis.

“It is a reasonable assumption that he will continue to take steps which will allow him to flee if he deems it necessary,” said a government filing that asked Magistrate Judge Karla Spaulding to revoke O’Neal’s bond and detain him until his trial starts in January.

After a three-hour hearing on Nov. 2, Spaulding tightened travel restrictions on O’Neal but declined to revoke bond and detain him. She concluded prosecutors had failed to establish probable cause he’d pilfered items from the repository.

O’Neal and a public defender had been in Indianapolis late last month to review boxes stuffed with records and personal materials seized by attorneys in the late 1990s after his Carmel-based company, American Public Automotive Group, collapsed and filed for bankruptcy.

According to an Oct. 28 government filing, paralegals for two Indianapolis law firms said O’Neal went into the records repository with a briefcase and at one point took some of the materials with him into a men’s restroom.

Upon reviewing the contents of boxes later, the filing says, the paralegals found the passport and Social Security cards were missing, as were envelopes of photographs, three Mont Blanc pens and two Mont Blanc wallets.

“By stealing not just the passport but other items as well, he has committed a theft of property of a bankruptcy estate, in violation of Indiana state theft statutes,” the government filing said.

During the Nov. 2 hearing, prosecutors argued that, although the passport is no longer valid, O’Neal could use it and the Social Security card to obtain other identification that would allow him to flee.

Repeated delays

The passport episode is the latest in a long list of surprising turns in the case, which was first scheduled to go to trial last year, then was reset for Oct. 6. At the 11th hour, O’Neal tried to fire his public defender, Peter Kenny, who admitted being woefully unprepared.

Judge John Antoon II rejected that request, instead delaying the trial two weeks. He set another new start date, Jan. 10, after a back injury sidelined Kenny.

Antoon reluctantly agreed to the latest delay, saying at a hearing last month that he thought the court system “has been abused.” To prepare for trial, O’Neal now has three public defenders working on his behalf.

Executives who say they were hoodwinked by O’Neal have been waiting years for him to get his comeuppance.

After on-again-off-again investigations, a federal grand jury in Orlando in July 2004 indicted O’Neal on 82 felony counts of money laundering, mail fraud and filing false tax returns.

According to investigators, O’Neal in the early 1990s formed American Public Automotive and over several years raised $18 million from 58 investors, including the Simon family, developer Michael Browning, music promoter David Lucas and City Securities Corp. executive James Merten.

Persuasive pitch

O’Neal’s pitch: American Public Automotive would open car dealerships adjacent to shopping malls nationwide, capitalizing on their huge base of customers.

But it never happened. The company in 1998 ran out of money and slid into bankruptcy court, without owning a single dealership. According to bankruptcy court records and the indictment, O’Neal drained more than $7 million from company coffers to fund a lavish lifestyle for himself and family. One Christmas, court records say, he doled out $90,000 in gift checks to his family.

It was a repeat performance for O’Neal, who in the 1980s teamed with golfer Arnold Palmer in another auto venture that also collapsed. In both cases, O’Neal has said, he withdrew money with the intent to repay it. His public defenders did not return calls last week.

O’Neal’s January trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. If the 12-person jury finds him guilty on all charges, he could face more than 700 years in prison.


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