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Former insurance agent guilty of fraud

The prosecutor says he will ask the judge to sentence Jack Sewall to 20 years in prison.

Jack Sewall was a former insurance agent and concert promoter who sold comfort and nostalgia to his elderly clients by providing them long-term health insurance coverage and booking entertainers from yesteryear.

A Citrus County jury added another title to his resume Wednesday: thief.

The jury found Sewall guilty of organized fraud and grand theft for carrying out a scheme to steal more than $1-million from three dozen elderly investors in his business ventures.

"Just as a lack of evidence can show reasonable doubt, a bulk of evidence can eliminate reasonable doubt," said Dean Banderet, foreman of the six-person jury.

Sewall, 53, faces 30 to 46 months in prison, Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said. But the prosecutor said he likely will ask the judge to exceed the sentencing guidelines and hand down a stiffer term: 20 years in prison.

Sentencing tentatively has been scheduled for Feb. 23.

Comforting jurors who waited to ask him questions about the trial afterward, Simpson assured them they had made the right decision.

"Make no mistake," he told them. "This man was a crook, a liar and a thief."

Sewall, wearing a navy blue sports jacket, stood with his head bowed as the jury read the verdict. A deputy placed him in handcuffs and took him into custody to await sentencing, as a handful of his elderly victims watched with some measure of relief.

"I personally feel like, "Wow,' " said Ellie Macko, who said she invested nearly $30,000 in Sewall's business. "It's like a pressure was lifted off your chest."

Gus Pizzo, who lost some $250,000 in bad loans to Sewall and led many of his victims in seeking criminal charges and civil judgments against him, was a little more circumspect.

During parts of the trial, Pizzo had been vilified by defense attorney Jim Cummins for stirring up sentiment against Sewall by his victims in letters suggesting Sewall had made off with their money and had it hidden somewhere. Pizzo said it wasn't just the money that made him so dogged in his pursuit of justice.

"It's hard to comment," Pizzo said Wednesday. "Jail time for this crime is less than adequate. My question remains: Where is the money?"

Cummins, who had urged jurors during his closing arguments not to let pity get in the way of their deliberations, said Wednesday that that was nonetheless what happened.

"This case definitely turned on sympathy," he said. "That's definitely understandable, but it's not legal. Mr. Sewall lost as much as any of these investors."

Before Sewall was led away by the courtroom deputy, Cummins draped an arm over his shoulder, giving him, as he said later, "words of comfort."

Sewall's trial lasted seven days and featured testimony from 70 witnesses, including most of his 37 surviving victims. Simpson said there were nearly 60 victims, but many died before the trial took place.

They said they met Sewall through his insurance seminars or after listening to him on the radio. They bought policies from him.

They said Sewall befriended them, asking them to invest in expansions of his insurance business or for short-term loans to book entertainers from the former Lawrence Welk program. He gave them free tickets to the shows at Curtis Peterson Auditorium.

Their friend and insurer offered them interest rates ranging from 10 percent to 45 percent. The interest checks came at first, but then either began bouncing or stopped coming altogether.

"It's a betrayal of an act of friendship," Pizzo said.

Investigators with the Citrus County Sheriff's Office have said Sewall took as much as $1.3-million from the nearly 60 investors, dating to the early 1990s. The charges only covered the time frame from January 1995 to the fall of 1996, when JMS Insurance closed its doors.

Sewall never testified and did not have witnesses speak in his defense. Instead, Cummins picked at the prosecution case through cross-examination of witnesses.

As each of Sewall's lenders told their story, he had them admit they had no knowledge of his client spending their loan money on anything other than what he said he had, as the state had to show.

Instead, Cummins tried to show that Sewall had run a successful insurance business until the mid-1990s. Then he ventured into the concert promotions business, which he didn't know, underestimating the costs and potential profits for putting on a show.

At the same time, he was ordered to pay $1,500 weekly in child support after splitting up with his wife in 1994. At worst, the defense lawyer said, Sewall was a great salesman, but a bad businessman.

"The most important question is, if Mr. Sewall had paid back the money, would we be here?" Cummins said. "It had to be a crime whether they got their money back or not."

But through a mound of circumstantial evidence, Simpson was able to convince jurors Sewall was soliciting loans under false pretense. His business never expanded. He rang off bar tabs, dental bills and auto repairs on company checks. And he withdrew more than $100,000 in cash from his company bank account after 1995, Simpson showed.

Most damningly, perhaps, Simpson was able to show Sewall continued soliciting loans, even as it became clear his concert business was failing and he was having trouble making interest payments.

"Jack's story was unbelievable," Simpson said in an interview after the verdict. "He was taking money with no intention of paying it back."

After the trial, jurors gathered at Stumpknockers on the Square to compare reactions to the the testimony they heard. They appointed Banderet as their spokesperson.

He said the prosecution erased any reasonable doubt.

"I guess the moral of the story is: Crime doesn't pay any better than business, even if it's not well run."

Asked what he does for living, he said: "I'm a salesman.""