The defense and supporters urged the judge to give jet-boat builder Christopher Bohnenkamp a relatively short prison term so that he could get out, make money and repay his victims.
Prosecutors urged the toughest sentence within federal guidelines — five years and three months. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill imposed that sentence Tuesday, but not before telling Bohnenkamp he had been inclined to go beyond the guidelines for a stiffer sentence because of the boat builder’s “extraordinarily extravagant” misuse of his customers’ hard-earned money.
A decision on restitution — how much money should be paid to victims — was deferred to a later time. Prosecutors have tallied the fraud at $3.2 million.
Bohnenkamp turned to the 30 people gathered in the courtroom before his sentence was handed down, saying he accepts full responsibility for his actions and considers this turning point “a new beginning.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
“I will take care of the victims,” he said. “I feel horrible, horrible.”
After the sentence, the 42-year-old former Idahoan walked quickly out of the courtroom with his wife, Rachel, and attorney, silently rebuffing a reporter’s request for comment. Bohnenkamp will be allowed to turn himself in a later date.
Several of Bohnenkamp’s victims presented impact statements Tuesday, saying they lost vast sums of money, retirement dreams and health through purchases of Bohnenkamp-crafted jet boats that never materialized.
“I believed he was a masterful salesman and boat builder ... I later learned he was a masterful liar and manipulator,” Leland Spindler said in court, saying it took him many years to earn the $111,0000 he lost to Bohenkamp “to support his gambling habit.”
By telephone from Montana, Grant Lungren told the court he paid $100,000 to Bohnenkamp and spent an additional $56,000 in legal fees related to the case.
“It will take us six years to replace what he stole,” Lungren said. “What this really means is he stole our retirement. And worst of all, he stole my health.”
Defense attorney Chuck Peterson presented letters from some of Bohnenkamp’s other reported victims who advocated a lenient sentence. In one letter, Trever Yochum argued that “putting Chris in jail does me or the other people involved no good. He should be given a chance to pay back his debts.”
That, said Peterson, is the crux of the sentencing decision: whether to give him a longer time in prison or a better chance to make restitution.
Bohnenkamp pleaded guilty in April to one count each of wire fraud and bank fraud. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors dropped 25 other fraud counts. Winmill accepted the deal, saying he believes the remaining charges adequately reflect the seriousness of the crimes.
According to the plea agreement, Bohnenkamp knew his companies — Treasure Valley Marine and Bohnenkamp’s Whitewater Customs — were broke but continued to take money from more than a dozen customers for boats that were never completed. The Statesman reported in 2015 that he had taken prepaid orders from many customers, without fulfilling their orders.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Patricco said Bohnenkamp had told a competitor he planned to “milk” the Idaho companies for the big-ticket prices customers paid for custom boats, then “tank it.” Bohnenkamp denies ever having said that, Peterson said, adding that the facts don’t bear that assertion out.
When production ended in Boise, Bohnenkamp moved to upstate New York to start a new business providing boat tours, and although ownership of Niagara Jet Adventures was transferred to a former employee, he and several family members continued to draw a total of $14,000 per month in salaries from that company plus expenses prosecutors and the judge called “extravagant.” Among the expenses charged to the company, Patricco said, were Bohnenkamp’s rent, airline tickets, vehicle payments, attorney fees and around $160,000 in gambling debts at one casino in 2015 and 2016.
Defense attorney Peterson acknowledged Bohnenkamp has alcohol and gambling addictions. And he stressed that Bohnenkamp was no longer owner of Niagara Jet Adventures but simply an employee, living in an apartment above a boathouse.
Winmill rejected that description, and Bohnenkamp’s transfer of the company, as “highly suspicious.”
But the judge joined the defense in rejecting the prosecution’s description of Bohnenkamp’s actions as “a Ponzi scheme,” in which clients’ money was taken for his own enrichment without the intent to provide the agreed-upon service.
“It was a fraudulent scheme with some Ponzi characteristics,” Winmill said.
Peterson stressed that about 100 of the custom jet boats ordered from Bohnenkamp’s Idaho companies were completed, and just 16 were left in various stages of incompletion. Prosecutor Patricco countered that 28, not 16, boats were left unfinished. And the judge said the fact that most of the custom boats were satisfactorily completed helped convince him not to levy a stiffer sentence.
“I wish you the best of luck,” Winmill told Bohnenkamp, “if only to assist these victims to receive some compensation.”
Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447