By Jonathan Pleasant
The next chapter of the nearly decade long Billy Luther Jones case unfolded before Judge Robert Culp last week in the upper courtroom of the Johnson County Courthouse. Even after coming before the court nearly a half dozen times, the victims ended up no closer to the justice they have long and patiently sought after. A final sense of closure has proven consistently elusive as Jones once again walked free.
Having pled guilty to numerous felonies revolving around a complex real estate scheme involving more than $200,000, Jones was first sentenced by Judge Lynn Brown in late 2012. Because of his age and medical issues Brown did not feel the admitted criminal could actually serve any kind of jail time, leaving Jones to walk away with a meager punishment of unsupervised probation and a requirement to pay the victims $100 each month in rotation, as well as to submit his income tax returns each year.
Several months passed, and with no income information having been received, the District Attorney Generals office filed a motion for just cause in July. With Judge Brown now retired, the task of review fell to Judge Culp who seemed to take a key interest. However, with background information going all the way back to 2005 when Jones scam first began, Culp decided to postpone the hearing so that he could look through the myriad of information surrounding the case.
In the meantime, the victims involved seemed to be encouraged by Culps initial stance. Elizabeth and Terry Wallace, who lost over $100,000 to Jones scheme, were quick to write out a detailed letter explaining the ongoing situation as well as some of the background for how Jones was able to illegally sell land he didnt own while at the same time juggling other cons in a complex web that ultimately involved home builder Ben Logan, business owners Carolyn and Richard Dugger, real estate agent Marilyn Goode, and even people Jones had supposedly grown close to, such as Tracy Steffey.
Many of those same victims were in the courtroom Friday, eagerly waiting to hear that Jones would finally be punished for his crimes. The results of the hearing were not as positive as initially hoped for. Judge Culp began by explaining that he had received the Wallaces letter, however such direct contact would actually constitute ex parte communication. As a result Culp indicated that he had shared the information with the attorneys involved in the case, including Randolph Fallin who represented Jones.
Judge Culp then went on to note that although Jones had admitted his guilt, financial crimes of this nature are not punishable with incarceration, indicating the fact that there are no longer debtors prisons. As such the Judge expressed that the best recourse would be through civil action. Addressing the income tax issue, Culp swore in Jones who testified that he had not filed income tax since 2004. Further, the money that was stolen ended up invested in the house Jones was living in with his girlfriend, but with nothing in Jones name there is little the courts can take in repayment.
Judge Culp gave ample time for the victims to describe their involvement in the case, detailing the notarized contracts, fake enterprises, and close personal friendships Jones developed in his efforts as a con artist. Culp listened intently and sympathized with the victims loss, stating, Hes caused a lot of people a lot of problems and I wish I could make it right. Hes a con. He knows how to do it, thats obvious. I wish I could do something but my hands are tied.
Much of the problem came from the fact that the actual sentencing was carried out by Judge Brown, leaving Culp unable to do anything with the case other than to look at whether Jones had disobeyed his court order. With no income tax returns to submit, there was very little that Culp could change with one exception. On numerous occasions Jones has been accused of working at the Tri-Cities Flea Market in Bluff City. By his own admission, Jones has been able to set up a permanent booth, hire employees, and sell goods each week.
Although he contests that the business is more of a therapy for his medical condition than an actual economic practice, many of the victims have felt that Jones has access to more funds than he actually admits. Culp even went on to directly question Jones, How do we know how much you make? leaving Jones to reply curtly, You dont. As a result, Judge Culp ordered Jones to file an income expense statement with the court to clearly identify how much money is coming in and where it is going. Information such as sales tax statements filed with the flea market would also have to be submitted.
In order to provide time for this information to be gathered, Culp set another court date for review on November 15th. Although disappointed that no more could be done, the victims seemed nevertheless thankful that Judge Culp is doing what he can to help the situation. Now several years after the crimes were committed, the real concern is less about the money lost and more about the fact that Jones is still free and able to potentially find a new set of victims.
By Jonathan Pleasant