An Arkansas man received one to two years' probation Friday for his role in a scam that defrauded Don Sinex and the Burlington Town Center of nearly $30,000.
Michael Marshall, 61, pleaded no contest to possession of stolen property worth more than $900, a felony. Two other charges, identity theft and false impersonation, were dismissed.
Marshall's attorney, Margaret Jansch, argued that Marshall had unwittingly been swept up in a more complicated scam targeting the Burlington developer.
On December 5, 2016, Jennifer Villamil, vice president of finance for Sinex's firm Devonwood Investors, received an email that appeared to be from Sinex, her boss. It directed her to transfer $29,348 from TD Bank to Marshall's bank account at Bear State Bank in Mena, Ark.
Jansch described the scam as "a very sophisticated operation." The email came on a day when Sinex was out of the office, she pointed out. It also instructed Villamil to "code [the transfer] as administrative expenses." Villamil had told investigators that the language appeared consistent with Sinex's previous communications and did not make her suspicious.
Villamil made the transfer to Marshall's account. She realized the request was fraudulent when Sinex asked her about it a month later. The sender's email address was one letter different from Sinex's.
Marshall, who sported glasses, a plaid shirt and shoulder-length, wispy brown hair, had flown in from Arkansas to appear in court, according to Jansch.
Jansch said her client did not know the money was stolen and was not capable of such a complicated scam. "He's not himself a sophisticated person," she said.
She said he had been told to receive the funds from a woman he met on an online dating site. The woman, whom police were unable to find, allegedly told Marshall the cash was meant for a family member. Marshall was to receive $2,000 for his effort.
Court documents indicate that Villamil received another request, sent from the same fraudulent email account, for $10,000 in January. Police at the time were already investigating the case.
Marshall has no known ties to Vermont, according to court documents. According to deputy Chittenden County state's attorney Susan Hardin, police were unable to track the fraudulent email to Marshall or to anyone else.
Marshall will return to Arkansas to serve his probation, with credit for the 81 days of jail time he already served. He also agreed to pay back the $2,000 he received from the scam.
File: Matthew Thorsen
Sinex did not appear in court Friday, but had advocated for more jail time and fines for Marshall and did not agree with the deal, Hardin noted. The developer was "very upset," she said, primarily because his insurance didn't cover the loss. Hardin said that Sinex's employees did not receive end-of-year and holiday bonuses because of the scam.
It's the latest in a series of legal and financial snags for Sinex. His project — which has been rebranded CityPlace Burlington — will include 14 stories of housing, retail and office space in downtown Burlington. But it has been quiet recently. He has yet to proceed with foundation work, despite requesting special permission from the city council to move forward. City officials have started to push Sinex about the pace of the massive project.
As of last month, Sinex had not secured construction financing for the redevelopment. He did not immediately return requests for comment.