SALISBURY, N.C. -- John Knox Bridges, the Salisbury man who invented elaborate stories to defraud friends, charitable groups and investors, has gotten what his victims say has long been coming to him: Serious prison time.
At a hearing Thursday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad sentenced Bridges to 10 years in federal prison, and ordered him to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution to his victims
The hearing was attended by several victims, including Cris Owens, who told the judge he lost $250,000 to Bridges.
“I trusted Knox. Absolutely and completely,” said Owens, a former deputy chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department who retired in 1993. “… He is a master manipulator.”
Bridges, who was convicted of bilking a total of more than $2.3 million from his victims, dodged his first sentencing hearing in January and was later caught hiding in a church basement with a shotgun. He has been jailed without bond since then.
In 2009, the Observer reported on allegations that Bridges made off with money from North Carolina fresco artist Ben Long and two nonprofits he helped direct: the Minnesota-based Lindbergh Foundation and the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
He had previously told some friends and associates that he came from a family worth billions. Bridges said he owned a corporate jet, socialized with world leaders, and served on the boards of prestigious groups, including New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
But much of what Bridges said about himself wasn’t true, the Observer’s investigation found.
Federal authorities later charged Bridges with running an elaborate Ponzi scheme. He falsely told several people he would invest their money in a Texas oil company, but instead used the money for travel and personal expenses, the federal indictment said.
The indictment also stated that Bridges persuaded victims to lend him about $710,000 in 2009 after telling them another lie: That his computer had been hacked into, and that $600,000 had been emptied from his bank account.
Bridges pleaded guilty to securities fraud and money laundering last year.
“Today, a greedy con artist got the punishment he deserved,” U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said in a release. “This was not a case of a good investment gone bad. Bridges stole money from his investors and used it for trips and personal expenses, while he continued to tell lie after lie to cover his fraud.”
Living a ‘nightmare’
While Judge Conrad ordered Bridges to pay full restitution to his victims, some say they doubt they’ll ever be repaid.
“My savings and retirement fund will never recover,” said one of Bridges’ victims, who told the judge she lost more than $400,000. “My life has become a nightmare Mr. Bridges created.”
Another victim, who also asked not be named, said she lost $680,000 to Bridges – a man who she said seemed compassionate and eager to help her after her husband died in a car crash.
“The revealed truths and loss of money have devastated me,” she told the judge.
Bridges, dressed in the orange jumpsuits worn by Mecklenburg County inmates, did not speak, aside from an occasional, “Yes, your honor,” in response to routine questions from the judge.
His defense lawyer, Richard Glaser, told the judge that Bridges blames no one but himself.
“He sits here today entirely shamed,” he said.
More than once, Bridges has tried to kill himself, Glaser said. In one 2011 case, Bridges shot himself in the torso after Salisbury police responded to a report that he was suicidal.
“If one examines the path this man has taken since 2004, it’s an illness,” Glaser said. “It’s an illness that has to be treated.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Vento took issue with that characterization.
“This was not an illness, but a conscious decision,” Vento said. “It was done so the defendant could support his own lavish lifestyle.”
Judge Conrad concluded that Bridges had shown a pattern of “predatory fraud,” and had represented “not only a financial threat to the public but a physical threat to himself.”
In prison, the judge said, Bridges should submit to a mental health treatment program. After serving his 121-month prison term, Bridges must also serve three years under court supervision, the judge said.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, said the federal government would seize pieces of artwork that Bridges owns in order to begin the process of compensating victims.
‘Part of our family’
Bridges grew up in Charlotte’s University City area, where his father, A.C. Bridges, was a trusted minister at the historic Back Creek ARP church.
Cris Owens, one of the church’s parishioners, told the judge he had a deep respect and friendship for A.C. Bridges. Later, he watched Knox Bridges care for his father as he struggled with Alzheimer’s Disease, and developed a trust and friendship for the minister’s son as well.
Knox Bridges began visiting his house regularly and became “part of our family,” Owens said. Bridges talked often about his philanthropic endeavors and about how he’d helped wealthy clients make smart investments.
“I said, ‘Knox, if you have anything guaranteed, I’d like to invest.’ He assured me it would be guaranteed,” Owens said.
Now the $250,000 is gone. Losing it, Owens told the judge, “will affect me the rest of my life. It will affect my children and grandchildren.”
“(Knox Bridges) has soiled the memory of his father forever,” Owens said. “So I don’t think he deserves any sympathy at all.”