COLUMBIA, SC U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie on Friday handed down a sentence of 14 years in federal prison to the mastermind of a scheme to d efraud an insurance company of $671,000 by amputating the hand of a mentally disabled Sumter man.
David Player, 58, of Sumter, who appeared before Currie in an orange jail jumpsuit with shackles on his hands and feet, must serve 85 percent of that sentence, or about 12 years, before he can qualify for release.
Normally, the maximum sentence Player would have been eligible for would have been up to nine years.
But Currie, who called the crime “the most egregious” she had heard in her years on the bench, agreed with prosecutor assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday, who said in court that Player’s actions had been marked by unusual cruelty, a complete lack of conscience and repeated lies to the judge.
“Player was the mastermind in all this,” Holliday told the judge.
In a September hearing, when Player pleaded guilty in hopes of a light sentence, he told Currie that he didn’t know where the remainder of the $671,000 he took from The Hartford insurance company by fraud was.
But shortly afterward, acting on a tip that Player was trying to get someone to stash $270,000 in a bank safety deposit box, Holliday and FBI agent Ron Grosse located the money and tied it to Player.
In a related sentencing hearing before Currie on Friday, the judge sentenced Gerald “Trey” Hardin III to three years and five months in federal prison.
Hardin, 34, who also pleaded guilty in September, admitted to being instrumental in carrying out Player’s scheme to bind the arm of Michael Weaver, a man with an IQ of between 54 and 65, to a tree and cut it off with a chainsaw attached to a pole.
Weaver went along with the scheme, too, but Currie ruled that because of his mental handicap, and because he was emotionally dependant on Player, he was a person who could be taken advantage of by a criminal.
Currie made her comments about Weaver – whom she called a “vulnerable victim” – after hearing testimony Friday from psychologist Monica Wright, who told the judge that Weaver’s “intellectual functioning is such that I believe he could not make a valid, informed decision.”
For years, Weaver had trusted Player because Player was the court-appointed trustee to handle Weaver’s Social Security Disability checks, which Weaver got each month due to his mental handicap.
“Weaver was easily manipulated by Mr. Player into circumstances that were not in his best interests,” Currie said.
Both Hardin, an admitted alcoholic and drug addict, and Weaver were drunk at the time Weaver’s hand and forearm were lopped off in 2008 in Sumter County.
After the amputation, Player, Hardin and Weaver drove to a local hospital, where they convinced doctors and nurses the mutilation had happened while the men were working in Player’s yard.
Hardin got a significantly lesser sentence than Player because, even though Hardin cut off Weaver’s arm, Hardin had cracked the case for the prosecution by confessing. His confession led to Player’s guilty plea, saving the government the time and expense of two trials. Hardin also showed remorse for his crime, and Player didn’t.
Like Weaver, Hardin had had a longtime personal relationship with Player, whom he regarded as a “father figure,” earlier testimony indicated. Player had dated Hardin’s mother for many years.
Player’s attorney, Mike Duncan, tried to convince Currie to give a light sentence. After all, Hardin was the one who actually cut off Weaver’s hand, Duncan said.
But Currie wasn’t convinced. Overwhelming evidence, she said, showed that Player had cooked up the scheme, taken out insurance policies for death and dismemberment, recruited Hardin and Weaver, manipulated both of them into the amputation and made arrangements that he would be the one to receive the insurance proceeds.
“From start to finish,” Currie said, “Mr. Player was the mastermind.”
Normally, Currie speaks evenly with a voice of iron calm. But when she got to a point in the hearing where she recalled how, in Player’s September guilty plea, he swore he didn’t know where any money was, her voice rose and her words came quickly.
“I asked Player who has the money,” said Currie, “and he lied to me.”
Calling Player’s lie and subsequent attempt to hide the $270,000 “obstruction of justice” and “continuing criminal conduct,” Currie said that’s a big reason why she tacked extra time to Player’s sentence.
The $270,000 is the only money recovered so far in the case. Player spent or disposed of most of it, according to court testimony in several previous hearings. Weaver and Hardin got very little of the money.
Underscoring the importance of the case was the presence Friday at the hearing of Dean Eichelberger, the 23-year veteran assistant U.S. Attorney now on sick leave and battling cancer.
Eichelberger, 58, who with the FBI spent several years trying to solve the case, left his sick bed to be in the courtroom Friday and sit at the prosecution table beside Holliday.
“Player is a person who had to be brought to justice,” said Eichelberger, who said he was appalled at the depravity of the crime. “It’s a good sentence.”
Interviewed outside the Matthew Perry U.S. courthouse after the hearings, Weaver – who now wears a hook where his left hand was – said his left arm was severed just above the elbow.
He declined to comment at length, saying, “What happened in the courtroom stays in the courtroom.” But asked if he would do it again, he glanced at his empty sleeve, shook his head and said, “No.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.