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United States v. Lucas

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 27, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
THOMAS LUCAS, JR., Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

          Before JOLLY, SMITH, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.

          JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge

         Thomas Lucas, Jr., appeals his conviction on seven counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements to an FBI agent. Lucas claims error in two evidentiary rulings and the denial of a new trial. We find no reversible error and affirm.

         I.

         Lucas was an employee of the Harry B. Lucas Company, a real estate investment business that had been founded by his grandfather and was run by Lucas's father and two uncles. In 2005, Lucas initiated a fraudulent real estate investment scheme through the company after he returned from a bachelor party claiming to have information about a business opportunity. Lucas alleged his high school friend Robbie Marks, Marks's brother-in-law, and other attendees had told him of the Walt Disney Company's plans to build a theme park near Celina, in North Texas.

         Upon receiving that information from Lucas, the Harry B. Lucas Company hired additional sales employees, who were required to sign nondisclosure agreements and were told of the secret Disney development. The company then began purchasing land where the entrance to the theme park was supposedly to be. Additional investors were recruited through presentations made by Lucas, who was the sole source of the company's information. The presentations were made using a laptop and a binder that contained the fabricated plans. The attendees were also required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and Lucas maintained throughout the presentations that a "lifelong friend" was the source of the information.

         Over time, the information and documentary evidence that Lucas claimed to have of the development and presented to potential investors expanded. He offered fake letters allegedly exchanged between the Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Jay Rasulo, and the company supposedly handling Disney's land acquisition efforts. Lucas claimed the development was to include several theme parks, a water park, a new airport, a maglev train, hotels, villas, sports facilities, and a shopping mall. He had elaborate park maps, floor plans, and mockups of the facilities.

         The scheme began to unravel when it came time for Disney to announce the project. Lucas informed his investors of a series of announcement dates, none of which, of course, occurred. Lucas attempted to calm the rising fears over the missed dates by distributing a fake memo from Disney CEO Bob Iger setting the announcement for October 1, 2008, along with a photo of Rasulo practicing his announcement speech. That announcement also inevitably failed to occur, leading Lucas to invent another excuse-that Rasulo's family had been injured in a car accident.

         Lucas's scheme was ultimately undone through investigations by the investors themselves. They were able to find, online, the photo that Lucas claimed to be of Rasulo practicing his announcement speech; they discovered it was really a modified image of Rasulo speaking at Disneyland's fiftieth birthday party. At trial, Rasulo confirmed that the photo was taken at the birthday party, that Disney never planned to open such a development in North Texas, and that there was no car accident.

         In the meantime, the identity of Lucas's source had been evolving from the original "lifelong friend" to more distant acquaintances, all of whom denied providing Lucas with any information about a Disney development in North Texas. During the FBI investigation into the scheme, Lucas told Special Agent Richard Velasquez in September 2014 that his source was Michael Watson, Sr., who Lucas claimed was both a lifelong friend a person he had met for the first time at the 2005 bachelor party. According to Lucas, Watson leaked the Disney information to him using burner phones and operated as a go-between for a Disney employee named Tyson.

         Watson was not supplying Lucas with any information but, instead, was an acquaintance he made at a methadone clinic they were attending. In 2011, Watson had moved back to Louisiana, where he had lived before Hurricane Katrina, and committed suicide. Watson's common-law wife testified that he had no connection to Disney or to a company buying land for Disney and that he had never shared such information with her. About 280 people had invested $47 million based on the fraudulent Disney information, resulting in a loss of over $19.6 million.

         Lucas was convicted on seven counts of wire fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1343 for payments wired as part of the scheme and on one count of making false statements to the FBI under 18 U.S.C. § 1001. He was sentenced to 210 months' imprisonment.

         II.

         Lucas asserts that the evidence that he met Watson at a methadone clinic was improperly admitted under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). The government put on evidence that Lucas had to obtain a waiver from the metha-done clinic to attend Watson's funeral. Lucas objected to that evidence in a motion in limine but did not renew the objection at trial. In his motion, Lucas stated that "[s]uch testimony is not relevant, constitutes an inadmissible bad act not resulting in a conviction and is highly prejudicial to Defendant."

         The parties dispute whether that motion properly preserved the objection for appeal. The government argues it was not preserved, because the objection offered insufficiently specific grounds, the district court's ruling on the motion was ...


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