SALISBURY, N.C. -- John Knox Bridges, the Salisbury man who concocted elaborate schemes to defraud friends and investors of more than $2.3 million, failed to show up for his federal sentencing hearing Friday and now appears to be on the run.
On Friday evening, authorities said Bridges should be considered “armed and dangerous,” according to the Salisbury Post. Bridges is believed to be driving a charcoal-gray Volvo station wagon, Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingle said.
Lingle said that police have no direct evidence that Bridges is armed, but they’re advising caution because of a 2011 incident in which Bridges shot himself.
Bridges left his mother’s home in Salisbury at 1 p.m. Friday and hasn’t been seen since, Lingle said.
At about 2:45 p.m. – 45 minutes after Bridges’ sentencing hearing was scheduled to begin – U.S. District Judge Bob Conrad issued a warrant for his arrest.
Asked afterward whether there was any concern that Bridges was a fugitive, Conrad said: “Oh yeah. That’s why a warrant was issued.”
Bridges pleaded guilty to securities fraud and money laundering last February. He could face between 57 and 71 months in prison , according to federal sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors previously said they would seek a sentence on the “low end” of the guidelines in exchange for Bridges’ cooperation.
If apprehended, Bridges will be given a chance to explain to the court why he failed to appear. But if it’s determined that he had no good cause for missing the hearing, federal prosecutors are no longer bound by the plea agreement, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
About a dozen of Bridges’ victims waited for him to appear. Some planned to make statements to the judge about how they’d been hurt.
One victim, Cris Owens, said he was “not the least bit surprised” that Bridges failed to show up.
“He never does what he says he’s going to do,” said Owens, 68, a former deputy chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, who retired in 1993. “He’s a master manipulator of people and situations.”
During the hearing, Conrad asked Bridges’ attorney to explain why he didn’t show. The defense lawyer declined, saying that would violate attorney-client privilege. The attorney asked to speak privately with Conrad, but the judge declined.
“I delayed coming in here for some time with the hope that Mr. Bridges would appear,” the judge told the lawyer.
Under the terms of his plea agreement, Bridges has agreed to repay his victims. But some victims say they have little hope they’ll get any of their money back.
Bridges, now 52, falsely told several people he would invest their money in a Texas oil company but instead used the money for travel and personal expenses, according to the indictment.
In 2011, Bridges shot himself in the torso at his home in Salisbury after police responded to a report that he was suicidal. A grand jury indicted him soon after he was released from the hospital.
In 2009, the Observer reported on allegations that Bridges made off with money from North Carolina fresco artist Ben Long, the Minnesota-based Lindbergh Foundation and the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
He had previously told 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.
Sherry Austin, a writer who lives near Asheville, said she lent Bridges $100,000, while a friend and two relatives lent and invested more than $1 million more. She said she has no hope of getting her money back.
Austin grew up near Bridges in Charlotte’s University City area and attended the historic Back Creek ARP church, where Bridges’ father was a respected minister.
Bridges “knew how to make good people pity him, to want to help him, to trust him…,” Austin wrote in an email to the Observer Friday.
“Some say he doesn’t have any money, doesn’t have the resources to go very far. But I know how he operates. He has had plenty of time to use his hangdog charm to get pity. No telling how many people have ‘helped’ him during the many months since his conviction.”