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Defense calls no witnesses as fraud case goes to jury

An insurance agent is accused of bilking investors of thousands of dollars of their savings.

The prosecution put one last witness on the stand Tuesday in the organized fraud and grand theft trial of former insurance agent Jack Sewall. She proved to be a tidy bookend for the state's case.

Florence Maloney told jurors that she missed testifying in the trial, temporarily moved to Sumter County last week, because she was burying a son who died of cancer. Then she described how she lent Sewall some $80,000 as his business was crumbling in 1996, ostensibly to expand JMS Insurance Corp. She got $8,000 back in interest before the business closed that fall.

"This is what aggravates me," she said, through sobs. "Because that money could have been used to treat his illness."

With that, the prosecution rested its case Tuesday and both sides made their closing arguments. The trial had spent a week in Sumter County because of a lack of available courtroom space in Citrus County. The jury begins its deliberations this morning.

Sewall opted not to testify or to put on witnesses in his defense. Instead, his attorney Jim Cummins spent two hours arguing that the state had failed to prove his client engaged in an intentional scheme to defraud the elderly of some $1-million in savings from 1995 to 1996.

Cummins also spent much of his time in closing argument urging jurors not to let their natural sympathy get the better of them.

The state put on about 70 witnesses during the first six days of the trial. Most of them were elderly victims, who said they lost anywhere from $2,000 to close to $100,000 in failed loans to Sewall.

Almost all said they met Sewall after attending one of his insurance seminars, or hearing a program he hosted on the radio. They bought long-term care policies from him.

Then Sewall solicited them for short-term loans, promising interest rates ranging from 10 percent to 45 percent. They trusted him. And they handed him thousands of dollars, often taking the money from their retirement savings.

Until Maloney, however, much of the testimony had been bereft of human consequences for the elderly investors.

As has been his strategy throughout the trial with other witnesses, Cummins had Maloney acknowledge she had no proof that Sewall didn't spend the money on his insurance business. As such, he said during closing arguments that her testimony did nothing to prove fraud.

"She wants to blame Jack Sewall and she can if it makes her feel better," Cummins said during his closing argument. "But that doesn't make Jack Sewall a criminal.

"It doesn't make it a crime. It makes it a shame."

Cummins walked jurors through the testimony of every witness. In each case, he said Sewall's elderly clients either invested in his insurance business, or in a venture to book entertainers from their younger years at the Curtis Peterson auditorium in Lecanto.

By all accounts, things went well with the insurance business until late 1994. That October, Sewall divorced and was ordered by a judge to pay $1,500 weekly in child support and alimony. At the same time he became involved in the concert promotion business, an enterprise he didn't know, and soon got in over his head, Cummins said.

Checks started bouncing. The insurance business closed. In the process, he said, his client went from being a successful insurance salesman to a concert promoter, and when those failed, a motel security guard.

Cummins said his client is guilty only at failing in business. And he said the state did nothing to show Sewall sought investors for a specific cause, then spent it otherwise, which the state must show to prove fraud and theft.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson put quite a different spin on the week of testimony. He described Sewall as someone who was "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

He said that Sewall never expanded his insurance business by opening other offices, though many of the witnesses testified they had lent money for that purpose. He highlighted the many checks Sewall passed from the JMS Insurance account to pay for everything from bar tabs to his children's tuition. And he drew attention to the more than $100,000 in cash withdrawals made from the JMS corporate account by Sewall from January 1995 until just before his business closed.

Simpson also asked jurors to review the timeline Cummins has so frequently highlighted during the trial in blaming his venture into productions for the failed loans. As some of his victims testified, he continued to solicit loans, though he knew that he was losing money on concerts, Simpson said.

The high interest rates were merely a hook, he said.

"He made promises he knew he couldn't keep," Simpson said. "Does that make him a bad businessman? No. It makes him a thief."

The prosecutor said that by reviewing that largely circumstantial evidence, jurors should have no trouble concluding Sewall was seeking loans to pay off loans, not invest, and to meet his child support payments.

And in the end, Simpson said, Sewall did nothing to warn investors of the impending doom, after leading them on a ship toward the rocks and sinking the ship like the Titanic.

In his rebuttal, Cummins said the Titanic comparison was fitting.

"Mr. Sewall didn't see the iceberg coming," he said. "Mr. Sewall didn't jump in a life raft. He went down with the ship. And he's still down."

Sewall already has lost judgments totaling about some $400,000 in at least a half-dozen lawsuits, though his lawyer and the State Attorney's office have said his former clients likely will never get their money back. In the criminal trial, he faces as much as 44 months in prison, Simpson has said.