Two owners of the Florida Avenue Grill, the District's famed soul food restaurant, were sentenced each to six months in prison and fined $10,000 in connection with an alleged fencing operation said to be one of the largest ever uncovered here.
Brothers Lacey Carl Wilson Jr., 50, and Joseph I. (Butch) Wilson, 45, were taken into custody by deputy U.S. marshals after U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt told them, "What you did was perfectly outrageous."
Also, Pratt chided the brothers for what he termed "duping" nearly 60 residents and clergy who sent the court letters supporting the Wilsons. Pratt suspended all but six months of the maximum possible 10-year prison term for each man, and he ordered each to serve 500 hours of community work when released.
"Both of you have suffered a great deal in the way of humiliation" because of publicity surrounding the arrests, "although probably not quite enough," Pratt said.
The Wilsons had pleaded guilty to a charge of interstate transportation of stolen goods after police infiltrated an operation that allegedly directed burglaries and thefts against homes and businesses. Police searched the Wilsons' homes and restaurant and confiscated an estimated $2 million in property.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Chapman, in arguing for a prison sentence for the Wilsons, displayed for Pratt yesterday a D.C. area map studded with blue and red pins that she said represented locations for 14 percent of the thefts identified by authorities so far in the alleged fencing operation.
But the Wilsons, who yesterday apologized to the court for harm done to burglary victims, denied that they were involved in fencing and disputed the government's estimates of the value of property seized. Chapman acknowledged that police have been able to identify as stolen only about $143,000 worth of the confiscated goods.
Bernadette Gartrell, attorney for the Wilsons, told Pratt that the two men maintain that they were buying the goods at the grill -- from jewelry to artifacts to computers and televisions -- for their personal use and not for resale. She quoted Lacey Wilson as telling a court officer, in preparing for sentencing, that he "didn't do anything that somebody else hadn't done or wouldn't do."
"Yes, they broke the law. Yes, they did something wrong," Gartrell said. But he added, "They did not plead to fencing. They did not admit to being fences." She asked that the Wilsons be placed on probation instead of being sent to prison.
D.C. police said they began their investigation of activities at the Florida Avenue Grill, regarded by many as a city landmark, after two informers told authorities that stolen items were being sold there. Later, a police officer posing as a drug addict and burglar sold more than $10,000 worth of "bait property" to the Wilsons.
According to police, the Wilsons specialized in horse-related items, such as horse statues, jewelry and saddles; discussed with sellers where to steal them, and then purchased the goods when they were brought to the restaurant at 1100 Florida Ave. NW.
Police later seized property at Lacey Wilson's farm in Fredericksburg, Va., as well as from the grill and James Wilson's house in Potomac. More than 7,500 items were placed on display for identification by theft victims in June, but only a fraction of the property has been claimed, Chapman told Pratt.
The judge denied the Wilsons' requests to report to prison voluntarily, and he ordered deputies to take the two into custody immediately. "That's part of the punishment," he said.