As the best man at a Penn State classmate’s wedding, chosen over two blood brothers, Brian Sapp gave a toast to the importance of friendship.
He went on to steal the life savings of several people present, including half a million dollars from the groom. Among his victims were the father of a severely disabled child, the parents of his godchildren and a man dying of pancreatic cancer — whose widow Sapp asked for $75,000 just days after the funeral.
For his four-year, $1.8 million real estate scam, Sapp, 38, was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison.
“I am not a criminal mastermind who manipulates people with no remorse,” Sapp told Judge Anthony J. Trenga in federal court in Alexandria. “I was too weak, too desperate, too proud.”
Sapp told the judge he has been reading self-help books and engaging in “self affirmations.”
He had claimed to his friends and their families he had contacts who could help him find distressed properties at great prices in the Washington area. In reality, after quitting his job as a construction manager in 2012, he never flipped a single house. The only money his business made was a “finder’s fee” for scouting a few properties. He went on to steal the name of the Alexandria home builder he had worked with, signing it to fake settlement documents to make his scheme appear legitimate.
Some victims even paid taxes on their illusory profits, which Sapp often convinced them to reinvest in his next venture. Friends told the court Sapp claimed he was “dominating” the real estate market, “killing it” and “crushing it.” He needed more money only because he was planning to expand from residential to big commercial real estate products, he told them.
On vacation with one pair of victims in Rehoboth Beach, Del., he offered a hostess $75 to get them a better table, then bought them an expensive dinner, one testified. He encouraged his victims to get their friends, families and co-workers to invest, despite knowing he had already lost all of their savings and would be involving them in fraud. One, who had named Sapp his children’s legal guardian in the event he and his wife both died, quit a six-figure job to work with his childhood best friend. His wife was five months pregnant with their fourth child when he learned they no longer had health insurance and would be getting none of the money they were promised.
The company was “entirely a fraud,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Carlberg wrote in a court filing, and the only “work” Sapp engaged in was “attending expensive wealth-building seminars and bloviating over golf matches.”
To stave off exposure as a charlatan, he used funds from newer victims to pay off older ones with what he claimed was interest on their investments. He hired employees and bought advertising for a business that never made any actual profits. He went to high-priced conferences, where court documents show he was purporting to give advice to legitimate real estate developers. The rest went to golf trips, vacations and Penn State tailgating parties at which he would roll up to State College, Pa., in an $80,000 customized Mercedes van with a satellite television in the back.
He invited many of his victims to those parties; several testified at the sentencing hearing about the food he served them from a professional grilling station.
The defrauded groom, who asked not to be named because of the potential impact on his own career, said in court only a “psychopath” could enjoy the “sick pleasure” of pretending to host people with their own stolen life savings.
The FBI advised Sapp not to sell the van; he did. He has not repaid any of the lost money and told his victims in court that there was nothing left — his parents went into debt to pay his defense attorney.
That attorney, Robert Jenkins, noted that Sapp freely and fully explained his scheme to the FBI and prosecutors before being charged with a crime, sharing with them thousands of falsified documents.
But that was only after one of his victims had gone to the authorities, making Sapp realize his con was over.
After his plea in December, prosecutors said, Sapp moved into the guesthouse of a friend in the real estate business and was working for him in exchange. But he was kicked out in February, according to the court filing, and since then has done no work.
“Apparently, the defendant spends his time cultivating friends on the telephone, cultivating people at the gym he frequents, and lobbying people to write letters of support for him based on incomplete and misleading information,” Carlberg wrote.
After learning more about the case from friends and court filings, three people who wrote such letters — including Sapp’s therapist — withdrew their support.
One college friend, James Douglas, wrote the court that he “was not entirely surprised” to learn of the scam. Sapp had been forced out of Penn State’s architecture program because his grades were not good enough, Douglas wrote.
“In the past I had seen Brian cope with failure by running from it and trying to hide it from his peers,” he wrote. “I believe Brian’s fear of being perceived as a failure crushed his self-confidence, polluted his thinking, and drove him to create a facade of success at the great expense of many others.”
Sapp said in court he was committed to repaying his victims, and his remaining friends wrote that he had shared plans for doing so.
Calberg told the judge that FBI agent Jeff Weeks called one of those friends during a break in the sentencing. Scott Deardorff relayed that Sapp had pitched him on a new real estate investment project. He wasn’t allowed to contact investors himself, Sapp told Deardorff, but he would coach his new business partner — he knew just what to say.