TAMPA — The owner of a Tampa spa company was sentenced to 15 years in prison Thursday for stealing more than $163,000 from dozens of elderly, sick and dying customers.
William J. Becker, 47, lived lavishly, renting a lakefront home and buying a car for his son, while ignoring frail customers who paid up front for spas they never saw.
"What you've done is committed murder of the soul to a lot of families, and you've left a trail of destruction," Hillsborough Circuit Judge Denise Pomponio told him. "People went to their graves feeling betrayed, feeling embarrassed for being ripped off by a con man."
Pomponio also sentenced Becker to 15 years' probation following his release and ordered him to make $163,290 in restitution. As a condition of his probation, she banned him from ever working in a job that involves selling primarily to elderly customers.
During a five-hour sentencing hearing, victim after victim told Becker how he shattered their lives.
"What you took for yourself was money," said Cornelia Rutherford, whose elderly father died without ever receiving the spa that his doctors said would have eased his pain.
"What you stole was hope," she added, "and hope, Mr. Becker, is priceless."
In court, Becker offered a cashier's check for $15,000, which he said he borrowed from his father-in-law, as a down payment on his restitution. But his victims, the prosecutor and the judge doubted that he would ever pay anything beyond that.
"No matter what he says or what his attorney says, he was a con man from the word go, and I'd like to see him hang if it was possible," said Donald Schoenberger, 74, of Valrico. He paid Becker $4,000 for a spa for his wife, Frances, who was badly hurt in a car accident, but never received a thing.
Becker owned Able Walk-In Tubs.Com Inc., which solicited customers over the Internet. At one point the company also had a storefront near Raymond James Stadium.
In 2007, Becker said he could deliver customized walk-in tubs designed to make bathing safer and easier for the elderly and infirm.
But authorities say he took deposits ranging from $2,300 to $10,500, never delivered a spa and soon vanished, moving from New Tampa to New Jersey.
Most of his 27 victims were from Florida, including five in Hillsborough and three in Pinellas counties. Others were from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Montana.
"He preyed on the weakest members of society, people with disabilities, physical infirmities," prosecutor Michael Williams said.
Becker offered discounts to customers who paid in cash or with a check.
After one Pennsylvania woman bought a tub from Able Walk-In Tubs, Becker never delivered it. Instead, he had another company he owned send her an e-mail offering her a second tub. The only reason she didn't lose her money the second time, Williams said, was she paid by credit card.
And after his arrest in 2008, he started two new tub companies in New Jersey, Williams said.
Becker pleaded guilty last month to organized fraud. He maintained Thursday that he never intended to cheat anyone. Instead, he said he was stymied by delays at a factory in China.
But Debra Osterbrock, a Hillsborough County consumer protection investigator, said she found "no identifiable expenditures" in bank records showing that Becker did anything to make, purchase or deliver the hot tubs he had sold.
Authorities said they did find $61,000 in cash withdrawals from company accounts, including one $300 withdrawal at a Seminole casino. Becker also used company funds to pay personal expenses, bought his son a Honda Accord and rented a lakefront home with a pool in the affluent New Tampa suburb of Cory Lake Isles.
Prosecutors said he skipped out owing six months' rent, but not before telling his landlord that he was a U.S. government arms dealer who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. Becker said if the landlord ever saw the authorities at the house, not to worry; that would be the Secret Service, there to protect him.