Preble attorney sentenced for theft from clients

Megan Kennedy

June 24, 2014

PREBLE COUNTY — A Preble County attorney was sentenced to spend time in prison after an investigation found he stole more than $200,000 from multiple residents while acting as their financial guardian.

Visiting Judge Neal Bronson sentenced James Thomas Jr., 38, of Brookville, to 4.5 years in prison and ordered him to pay $208,094.65 in restitution to the victims, on Tuesday, June 17.

Thomas was charged in April with three counts of theft from an elderly person or disabled adult and three counts of falsification after an investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) found that Thomas took hundreds of thousands of dollars from four victims’ bank accounts between 2007 and 2013.

“While he lived with, he left [the victim] to live without,” said Sarah Michael, the now-guardian of the estate for a victim. “[The victim] has trust issues of all attorneys since the actions of Mr. Thomas, as she believes that all people, including I and the support, are doing the same things to her that Mr. Thomas did,” said Michael. “This Christmas, she was not able to buy gifts for her grandkids because she did not have any extra-allowable funds to do so … she could not personally buy Christmas presents for her grandchildren, but it is doubtful that Mr. Thomas denied that luxury to his step-children.”

Michael said Thomas “is a disgrace to everything this profession stands for. While [Judge Bronson] and I chose to respect the law and the oath that we took, realize that we as people and attorneys are held to a higher standard, and should be because of our position within the community, Mr. Thomas did not … he has made a mockery of his duties to [the victim] and to the practice of the law.”

“I looked at JT not only as my attorney, JT was my friend,” said the victim. “That’s just what disappoints me so much. I don’t know why he turned against me; was it just for money?” The victim presented a Post-it note from Thomas to her that read: “[victim’s name] you’re on a budget, from now on you get per month $700 for food and other groceries.”

According to investigators, Thomas admitted to stealing a portion of the funds to support an addiction to ephedrine.

“The victims in this case trusted this attorney to safeguard their finances, but this defendant thought only of himself, stealing their money little by little until it added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Attorney General DeWine. “People with disabilities and our elderly residents should be treated with respect, especially by those whose job it is to help them. I am pleased that this individual will have time to reflect on his actions in prison.”

The victims, who range in age from 41-72, are all Preble County residents.

“I have no anger against Mr. Thomas, only major disappointment,” said another victim.

“I really messed up; not because of anything other than just bad choices,” said Thomas. “I developed a drug addiction, I was able to keep it away from my father, somehow, I don’t know how. He didn’t notice it, I guess, or he didn’t want to notice it, but it’s pretty much plagued my entire life, consumed my life for about the last five years … I took it, and I shouldn’t have, and I developed a habit. I became dependant on this drug, I couldn’t believe what I was doing to my life, I couldn’t believe it … it hits me how badly I’ve tarnished this job … God only knows that I’ve spent every minute of every day trying to figure out a way to go back in time to change it, but I can’t, I can’t do that. All I can do is go forward.”

Thomas apologized to his victims and said, “none of it was intentional. I love each and every one of you and I always did. What I did to you was horrible, horrible, there’s no excuse for it; I have no excuse.”

The case was prosecuted by Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Special Prosecutions Section, and investigators with the Preble County Sheriff’s Office assisted in the investigation.

In an effort to increase the investigation and prosecution of elder abuse cases in Ohio, Attorney General DeWine announced in May the formation of a new Elder Justice Initiative within the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Through the Elder Justice Initiative, the Attorney General’s Office will work with local officials and advocates to identify, investigate, and prosecute elder abuse cases and increase services to victims.

Sarah Keller and James Thomas Sr., the father and law partner of Thomas, spoke in defense of James Thomas Jr.

Thomas Jr. said of this father’s law practice, “he’s left with the storm, if you will, the wake of destruction that I’ve left behind.”

Thomas Jr.’s attorney, Paris Ellis, of Middletown, said, “This is an extremely difficult case for me because he truly did disgrace all of us … It’s difficult because people think we attorneys are all crooks anyway, when an attorney has this kind of conduct, they view that as proof that we all truly are crooks.”

“It’s certainly clear to the court out of everything I’ve received, Mr. Thomas that you’ve certainly done some good things as a person and as a lawyer, you have great aspects as a person and a lawyer, being a caring and thoughtful person, but as you’ve displayed in your conduct that gave rise to these charges, that’s not always the case,” said Judge Bronson, who discussed a subsection of the law, said Thomas Jr. is unlikely to commit these crimes again, however, Bronson described “seriousness factors” of the charges and the nature of the crimes, saying, “and to of those seriousness factors, you’ve hit about almost all of them. The victims of this case have come forward today, they’ve suffered severe economic harm … it’s been indicated to the court that you weren’t stealing money from millionaires … you were stealing from people whom your theft led to their debilitation.”

“You were in a position of trust, you have a reputation made by you and your father preceding you as lawyers in this community,” said Judge Bronson.

Reports of the possible abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation of an elderly Ohioan can be made to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office by calling 1-800-282-0515.