A Richland, Ga., couple will soon begin prison terms after pleading guilty to stealing about $3.5 million from the owners of Mikata Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar in Albany in an investment scheme.
Just as their trial was to begin last month in Columbus, Michael and Phyllis Bleckley pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.
Prosecutors say the Kim family were victims of a Ponzi — an investment operation where returns are paid to investors from other investors’ money. Michael Bleckley, 54, was sentenced to 25 years, 10 of which he’ll serve behind bars. Phyllis Bleckley, 58, was sentenced to 10 years, one of which she’ll spend in a work detention center. The Bleckleys’ son, 28-year-old Michael Bleckley Jr., also is charged and is awaiting trial.
Mikata has been in business since 1993. Sun Tu Kim, Sun Man Kim, Sun Pil Kim and Sun Bu Kim began their business in Albany and expanded to Columbus, Macon and Dothan, Ala. The Kims say the Bleckleys approached them in 2000 or 2001 and fooled them more than seven years, saying they were money brokers. Seven Kim family members were victimized by the Bleckleys and their company, MKB Capital Management Inc., prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say the couple pretended to invest the Kims’ money when they actually bought property across the region, including real estate in Marion, Webster, Stewart and Meriwether counties. They purchased a pecan farm, funeral homes, a custom car business and a Warm Springs restaurant.
“In a sense, we think it was some form of money laundering. You get illegal funds and then you go and make a legitimate purchase using a portion of that money so it was very complicated,” Chief Muscogee Assistant District Attorney Alonza Whitaker told WTVM-TV.
Prosecutors say the Bleckleys likely had other victims, but none has stepped forward.
Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Gil McBride said, “The fact that a crime was committed by someone wearing a business suit does not make that crime any less of an offense than a crime committed by a youthful offender, someone who steals cars or someone who breaks into houses. In my book, and more importantly under the law, a thief is a thief.”
The Bleckleys’ attorney, former Columbus mayor Frank Martin, says the Kims took their chances with investments, where there are no guarantees. All of the Bleckleys’ assets have been frozen and their property is in bankruptcy; a hearing is scheduled in November to determine how the couple will repay the Kims.
The Bleckleys told the Kims they were putting their money in German stocks and bonds. Prosecutors say the couple eventually sold unregistered securities to the victims in an effort to cover up the alleged scheme.
It was late 2007, when a maturity date never came, that the Kims concluded that they likely were crime victims, authorities said.
It was in late 2007 that they realized something just wasn’t right. Columbus police conducted a two-year investigation before security a grand jury indictment.
Prosecutors say that Ponzi schemes are relatively common, but that victims often do not report the crimes for various reasons, including embarrassment and because sometimes the money they invest is illegally obtained.
Prosecutors say the Bleckleys met with the Kims quarterly to present financial reports. Once, the Bleckleys claimed that a Middle East terrorist attack had resulted in increased returns, prosecutors said.