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Ormond Beach Observer Friday, Aug. 10, 2018 3 months ago

City Commission Zone 4 candidate found guilty of 2015 racketeering charges

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In Florida, racketeering is a first degree felony and could be punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
by: Jarleene Almenas News Editor

After a week-long trial full of testimony from the people Zone 4 City Commission candidate James Holcombe's defense described as "liars, thieves and criminals," Holcombe and his father were found guilty on charges of racketeering and conspiracy to racketeer.

The jury deliberated for five hours. When the verdict was read, the Holcombes' family members cried. James Holcombe and his father Dale Holcombe were stoic.

Holcombe and his father were on trial on allegations resulting from a Volusia County Sheriff's Office sting in 2015 where at least 21 individuals were arrested for the resale of gift cards derived from stolen merchandise. "Boosters" would go into stores like Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart, steal items and have a second person, called a "returner," exchange the item for gift cards. They would then sell the gift cards to James Holcombe's business, Cash for Cards, which had two stores in Daytona Beach and Bunnell.

Dale Holcombe and James Holcombe listen as their verdict is read.

His father, Dale Holcombe, operated and owned a third store out of Deltona. Both entered innocent pleas to the charges. Neither he nor his son James Holcombe took the stand.

The defense will pursue a supersedeas bond, or appeal bond, going forward, said defense attorney Aaron Delgado. A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled. 

The Holcombes sat on the opposite side of the eight-person jury and listened throughout the trial as incarcerated prior customers, now dressed in blue or orange jumpsuits, and former employees, some of whom James Holcombe once considered friends, testified against them. 

On the second day, Paul Carpenella, Jr. and Michael Welch testified that James Holcombe instructed them "not to ask questions" when people came in to sell gift cards. Welch testified that if a card turned out to be fraudulent, they would relay that information to James Holcombe. 

“It was up to James [Holcombe] to tell us what to do next," Welch said.

These statements were part of the closing arguments by Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Mary Brigid Sammon. She described the Holcombes' business model as a pyramid, with the father and son duo at the top, followed by the employees who usually assisted all the customers directly. 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell. What we don’t know can’t hurt us. However, what they should’ve known definitely hurt them.” 

Mary Brigid Sammon, assistant statewide prosecutor

She said the Holcombes knew that some of those customers couldn't be trusted but that they allowed them to come in to sell cards multiple times a day. 

Sammon attributed the following motto to the Cash For Cards business model.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell," Sammon said. "What we don’t know can’t hurt us. However, what they should’ve known definitely hurt them.”

In the middle of deliberations, the jury asked to listen again to a recording from the VCSO investigation where James Holcombe, after hearing the undercover deputy talk about how he stole items for a gift card, is heard addressing the situation. He asked if the card was obtained by stealing, and the deputy said no. James Holcombe proceeded with the transaction.

During the trial, Peter LaPlaca, a frequent customer of Cash For Cards, testified against the Holcombes, saying that when he was blacklisted from selling cards — per VCSO instruction during its undercover sting — he was told by an employee to make someone else sell the cards for him. 

LaPlaca sold 600 cards in six-months.

Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Mary Brigid Sammon speaks to the jury during closing arguments on Friday, Aug. 10. Photo by Jarleene Almenas

“Six-hundred cards," Sammon said. "That’s a lot of birthdays. That’s a lot of Christmases.”

Nicole Hanrahan, a former customer of Cash For Cards, testified on the third day. Clad in a blue jumpsuit and handcuffs, she said she sold at least five cards a day, every day, for about a year. She said that one time, they sold 15 cards in one day.

Sometimes they went to other gift card resale stores, but she said they asked a lot of questions. They couldn't sell cards as often to them because those stores would stop buying cards from them. Cash For Cards was different.

“They never questioned any of our cards, ever,” Hanrahan said.

The defense compared Cash For Cards to Home Depot during closing arguments. Delgado, who is also a Daytona Beach City Commissioner, said that Home Depot policy does not hold the employees responsible in questioning store returns — as testified Patrick Fairley on the third day of the trial.

Fairley is a senior corporate investigator for Home Depot in the southeast U.S. All the things Home Depot does, if the company was on trial, could be painted by the prosecutor with a "suspicious brush," Delgado said. 

Defense Attorney Aaron Delgado speaks to the jury during closing arguments on Friday, Aug. 10. Photo by Jarleene Almenas

"If we're doing the analysis, this is just another business, just like Home Depot," Delgado said. "Trying to make money? Yes."

Delgado said James Holcombe established a policy that enabled his employees to turn people away and ban them with just cause. He brought up the plea deals they obtained by testifying. Delgado also questioned VCSO's undercover operation.

"I'm shocked to hear that the Volusia County Sheriff's Office turned a blind eye and just followed people around while all kinds of things were being stolen and drugs being purchased and apparently just watched countless acts of shoplifting all in an effort to bring down the gift card enterprise of some 25-year-old kid," Delgado said.

He said the state might've proved during the trial that something suspicious was going on at Cash For Cards, but they couldn't directly connect each individual card to the Holcombes. Prior to jury instruction, the defense attempted to get a judgment of acquittal from Circuit Judge James Clayton, but it was denied.

 

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