Was it a carefully crafted scheme to defraud a veteran businessman or simply an investment gone bad?
The answer to the question about a $25,000 investment St. Petersburg website developer John Heintz received in a deal with a Pinellas County insurance executive will determine whether the 61-year-old spends up to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutor Greg Groger opened his case against Heintz Wednesday before a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court jury, arguing that Heintz fraudulently portrayed himself as a highly educated tech entrepreneur with a multimillion-dollar business.
"What the evidence is going to show at the end of this trial is that John Paul Heintz made material misrepresentations about facts," Groger said. "He had an intent to defraud" insurance executive William Scott Nelms.
Although the trial focuses on a single grand theft charge, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office case follows a St. Petersburg Times report that Heintz had run business deals that victimized people in three states, including a retired couple in Illinois who lost more than $450,000.
Groger told jurors that Heintz touted his success in a business relationship and friendship with insurance executive William Scott Nelms. But in the end, much of what Heintz told Nelms, "simply wasn't true."
"Mr. Heintz told Mr. Nelms that he had a degree from (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). … MIT has no record of John Paul Heintz," Groger told the jury.
Daniel J. Fernandez, Heintz's lawyer, told the jury that his client denies the allegations by Nelms. Fernandez said Nelms is a savvy, educated businessman who knows how to invest.
Nelms is simply belatedly claiming fraud after failing to protect his investment, Fernandez argued.
"He never asked to see books. He never asked to see records. Nothing," Fernandez said. "He just invested $25,000, hoping to get something out of it."
In April 2004, Nelms gave Heintz $25,000 for a 1.25 percent interest in one of Heintz's business. On the witness stand, Nelms said he was looking for a return on that investment.
"I trusted John," said Nelms, who handled Heintz's insurance policy on his $1 million St. Petersburg home as well as life, health and automobile coverage. "I had no reason to not believe him."
But as details of other investment deals came to light along with questionable business ventures and Heintz's past legal troubles, Nelms and others now say they were duped by him.
The state rejected a plea agreement proposal by Fernandez that would have required restitution and a year and a day in prison. Part of the trouble for Heintz is he has past guilty pleas and convictions, including felony theft by deception, misdemeanor theft and aggravated assault.
Heintz's trial continues today and could last through Friday.