From Greenville to American Greed

Criminal defense attorney Beattie B. Ashmore has encountered a wild world of Ponzi schemes and dinner-time shootings

Published in 2014 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Stan Kaady

It may be one of the only cases in the world where phelgm could get a defendant 20 years in jail.

Authorities accused a 19-year-old worker at a McDonald’s in Simpsonville of spitting into two cups of iced tea after a mother and daughter complained their tea wasn’t sweet enough. Video caught the employee leaning over the cups, and the customers claimed they saw mucus when they removed the cup lids to add sugar. The “ick” factor alone made the case international news. If convicted, the worker faced up to 20 years in prison on a felony charge of malicious tampering with food.

But charges were dismissed at a preliminary hearing only a few weeks later. Beattie B. Ashmore, the worker’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times the case never should have gotten that far. “It took the judge all of 10 seconds to dismiss it for lack of evidence,” Ashmore said, noting that law enforcement officials didn’t preserve the tea or cups, didn’t do DNA tests and had a video which showed the worker leaning over to reach the ice maker. The worker, a college freshman planning to become a nurse practitioner, insisted from the start that he was innocent.

That’s just one example of the high-stakes cases that have characterized Ashmore’s career. Ashmore brings to his civil litigation and criminal defense practice an incisive intellect and sense of integrity. In court, it doesn’t hurt that his distinctive South Carolina drawl enhances his way with a story.

His roster of fascinating cases ranges from a defendant found innocent of six counts of mail fraud after the defendant’s brother-in-law in the same company was sentenced to 10 years in prison, to a fight over a $200-million machine that makes toilet paper. (Don’t ask.) He has argued before the Supreme Court of South Carolina and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Yet some of his greatest achievements are ones he can’t discuss. “My best cases are those where people and corporations don’t get charged,” he says.

Along with representing clients, Ashmore has also been appointed by judges to the more unusual position of receiver. In this role he locates hidden assets, liquidates the proceeds and returns what is left of the money to victims of Ponzi and other fraudulent schemes.

The dollar amounts can be sizable. In one receivership project, Ashmore and his investigative team had to locate assets belonging to three men convicted of running an $82 million Ponzi scheme. Ashmore found and sold vacation homes, pro football stadium boxes, pricey cars, a Gulfstream jet and more. In another case, Ashmore had the pleasure of traveling to the Bahamas, meeting with the attorney general there, and shutting down a bank that was little more than a front for money laundering.

The third-generation native of Greenville has a storybook family history. His grandfather was one of two pharmacists who set up shop downtown, and his parents met in high school, where his dad was captain of the football team and his mom was head cheerleader. Ashmore stayed where his roots were, graduating from the College of Charleston in 1981 and the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1986. He clerked for bankruptcy judges for four years, and then moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina, trying numerous cases as a federal prosecutor with colleague Trey Gowdy.

“We didn’t share an office. We shared a desk,” Gowdy recalls. Sitting on opposite sides of their single piece of furniture, Ashmore and Gowdy became an effective team.

But Ashmore got bored with the job after six years. “I found myself giving the same opening statement, the same closing statement, introducing the same videotape of the defendant removing a kilo from his trunk.” Ashmore left to go into private practice, and in 2000, Gowdy ran successfully for the Office of the 7th Circuit Solicitor. The friends went from trying cases together to being on opposing sides. Gowdy had to do battle with what he calls Ashmore’s “almost irresistible combination of likability and talent.”

When he knew Ashmore was coming to his office to discuss a client, Gowdy would coach his assistant prosecutors about what they could and could not agree to. “But he’s such a likeable guy-—and he would never leave my office,” Gowdy says. “I don’t want to say he out-negotiated me, but if anybody out-negotiated me, it would be Beattie Ashmore.”

Gowdy, who now represents South Carolina’s 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, credits Ashmore’s background as part of what makes him successful. “He understands what current prosecutors are going through and he understands law enforcement very well. When you have judges trusting you, prosecutors liking you, and law enforcement officers respecting you, you’re going to do a good job for your client.”

Add a sunny disposition, and you have an attorney who can make friends in high places. “He’s just a very positive individual,” says William W. “Billy” Wilkins, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, who has served as co-counsel with Ashmore on a number of cases. They are also occasionally quail hunting partners.

Ashmore’s temperament makes him stand out in a job that can reveal humanity at its most difficult. Take State v. Cooley: a case in which a man shot his wife to death during dinner. Ashmore’s client was found not guilty of murder but convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Ashmore and colleagues appealed and obtained a reversal.

The state Supreme Court’s summary opinion on that case offers chilling details. One of the couple’s young sons testified his parents were “fussing” during the day, and the father had accused the mother of having an affair. The child also said the father fired his shotgun in the air outside and threatened the mother, saying, “I’m not playing with you. I will shoot you.” During the trial, the defendant said his gun fired accidently  while  he was showing his wife it was unloaded. Two of the couple’s three children were home but there were no witnesses to the shooting.

The Supreme Court agreed with the argument that the trial judge should not have offered jurors voluntary manslaughter as a possible verdict. The court record defines voluntary manslaughter as “the unlawful killing of a human being in the sudden heat of passion upon sufficient legal provocation,” but there was no evidence of “sufficient legal provocation” in the record. Because of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy, the defendant could not be tried again for murder. He pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time served, less than five years.

“The physical facts at trial established that this was an accidental but admittedly reckless discharge of a firearm, and therefore involuntary manslaughter was the appropriate charge,” Ashmore says.

In one of his most difficult cases, Ashmore was appointed to represent an inmate on federal death row. In 2002, Chad Fulks was already in a Kentucky jail serving time when he escaped with his cellmate, embarking on a 17-day crime spree that left two women dead. Both women were abducted from Wal-Mart parking lots in broad daylight. Fulks pleaded guilty to killing the women and following his sentencing. Ashmore’s job was to do a post-conviction review, assessing Fulks’ lawyers to confirm no witnesses were missed, and no strategic or evidentiary mistakes were made. “You start from scratch and revisit every single thing the lawyers did,” Ashmore says.

He and his team argued that Fulks had received ineffective assistance of counsel, but the judge denied their motion and ruled otherwise. Ashmore’s team also arranged for a volunteer group with specifically trained dogs to search for the bones of one victim. The remains, identified through DNA testing, were uncovered in a thicket deep in the woods that the FBI had previously missed.

While the defense cases can be tremendously sad in their details, Ashmore's receivership projects are striking for the sheer scope and movie-quality audacity of the crimes. In the memorably named Three Hebrew Boys case, three men were convicted of an $82 million scam that targeted people at churches and military bases. The trio, which included a minister and former Columbia city cop, claimed they were investing in foreign currency markets on behalf of their constituents as part of a debt-relief ministry. But they invested less than a dollar of every $10,000 entrusted to them.

“They named themselves from the Bible, the book of Daniel, after Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, who tested themselves by walking into a fire,” Ashmore says. The names were designed to convince others they had been through the fires of debt and come out stronger. Now, “they’re all in jail, doing 27-year sentences.”

Ashmore and his team analyzed 17,000 different financial transactions as part of their research into the scam. They found 28 vehicles, a jet (which Ashmore sold to an Arab sheik), a million-dollar motor coach, three condos in Atlanta, real estate in Florida, cash, jewelry and houses. From the proceeds, 3,800 investors have received more than 50 percent of their initial investments back—“one of the highest recoveries in recent memory,” according to the business law blog Ponzitracker. 

Just as over-the-top is a case that landed Ashmore on the CNBC true crime show American Greed. Ron Wilson, a former Anderson County council member, predicted the government would collapse and convinced people that their money would be safest in silver. Though some of his clients didn’t agree with his political beliefs, they did see the price of silver going up and gave him money to invest in silver bullion on their behalf. On the show, the Secret Service calculated that if all of Wilson’s numbers in the Ponzi scheme were correct, he would have needed to have stashed away 8 million ounces of silver, the equivalent of 250 tons, or 125 Ford Explorers.

Wilson eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison for a decade-long scam. About 800 investors lost money in the $59 million Ponzi scheme; Wilson took money from his  brother and daughter. The investigation into his assets continues, but Ashmore's team has turned up 48 guns plus ammo, $400,000 in solar panels, a collection of wagons and an 80-acre working farm with horses, sheep, cattle. “When I was in the U.S. attorneys office, we had a rule, ‘Never seize anything that eats,’” Ashmore jokes, but among other tasks, he had to find an appropriate caretaker for the farm and someone who could determine the value of the animals before they would be sold.

To track down assets, Ashmore and colleagues search through bank accounts and seize mail. They also talk to investors, prosecutors and anyone with information. One inherent challenge is “the bad guys are always months ahead, if not years ahead, of me,” Ashmore says. And though he’s previously been very successful at finding clandestine loot, there are no guarantees. The Three Hebrew Boys promised victims that if they “invested” $1,000 a month for 16 months, after that they’d get a return of $1,000 per month for life. Ashmore still has callers misguidedly demanding their monthly grand.

It’s impossible to please everyone, Ashmore says. “Out of every one of my receivership cases, I get cards from little old ladies that will bring a tear to your eye because they are so sweet and so thankful. It makes my day. In the same batch of mail, I’ll get a card from another investor that curses me and wishes my heart could be plucked from my chest.”

Now in solo practice—he and his former partners were conflicting each other out of cases when practicing together, so they all went solo—Ashmore clearly feels a strong sense of community. He hosts an annual Christmas quail hunt for friends and associates to thank them for a good year, and surprises his wife and two children with a trip each spring, keeping that year’s destination a secret until they’re on their way. One recent holiday featured a sailing excursion in the Virgin Islands with a surprise stay at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas.

After more than two decades in law, Ashmore hasn’t forgotten how far he’s come. “My first federal trial as a prosecutor, I remember making the most compelling closing argument. I had this guy in the back left corner [of the jury] and he would shake his head ‘yes’ when I needed a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when I needed a ‘no.’ When I finish, the judge says, ‘At this time, we’ll excuse our alternates,’ and the guy got up and walked out the back of the courtroom. I had all my eye contact directed at the alternate.” Ashmore’s eyes light up as he laughs about the mistake he never made again.

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