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His business was failing — so he stole and sold golf carts for ‘easy cash’

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Nathan Nelson watched in 2017 as his home inspection business foundered and bills mounted.

Then, he had an idea that he thought could save him — stealing golf carts, according to court records.

For the next four years, Nelson hopscotched around the Midwest and Southeast, taking them from rural golf courses in the dead of the night, court records show. He later sold the carts through websites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

Then, last June, prosecutors said Nelson’s scheme unraveled when he was arrested in Georgia while trying to steal from a business that services golf carts.

On Tuesday, Nelson, a 45-year-old Florida resident, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property, a felony. A federal judge in North Dakota also ordered Nelson to pay a total of $13,713 in restitution to several of the courses he targeted and to forfeit $222,736 to the federal government. Under his plea deal, the judge dismissed the other eight charges against him.

Nelson’s lawyer, Lorelle Moeckel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Wednesday. But in court documents filed earlier this month, Moeckel said her client takes full responsibility for stealing the golf carts. Over the years, she said, Nelson repeatedly told himself after a heist that it would be the last — until it wasn’t, and he decided to steal again “to ease his financial problems.”

“He was lured by the idea of quick easy cash and made a very poor choice,” Moeckel said, adding that Nelson lacked confidence, primarily because of a stutter that affected his ability to communicate.

Nelson started his scheme in June 2017 and kept it going until the moment he was arrested, federal prosecutors said. Often under the alias “Mason Weber,” Nelson stole or tried to steal about 84 golf carts from courses spanning thousands of miles, including ones in North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Georgia, according to court records. He was successful on at least 70 of those attempts, authorities said.

After stealing the carts, which he started using a universal key, Nelson would drive them away from the course clubhouses to nearby locations where he’d staged a getaway vehicle, court records state. In several thefts, he used a Penske moving truck he had rented, authorities said. FBI agents later used the GPS tracker in the Penske truck to tie him to golf courses in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan — all of which had reported thefts.

Prosecutors said Nelson offloaded the carts, valued at $5,000 or more, for about half of what they were worth. He told one buyer that he had access to a steady supply of cheap golf carts because his wife worked for a company that leased them out, according to court records.

FBI agents interviewed one of Nelson’s buyers who, starting in 2019, had purchased between 20 and 30 carts. The man still had four and let the agents inspect them. He also gave them a collection of scorecard pencils he’d found over the years. Branded with golf course names, the pencils tied Nelson to the businesses he’d hit, officials said.

On June 11, sheriff’s deputies in Georgia’s Seminole County discovered Nelson trying to steal carts from Dixie Sales and Service, which does maintenance work on the vehicles, authorities said. When they searched him, deputies allegedly found golf cart keys, preprinted labels with fake serial numbers and “burglary tools.” He also had two IDs, both with his photo: a Florida driver’s license with his real name and one from Iowa for “Mason Weber,” records show.

It was the end of a four-year scheme that mushroomed into a multistate plot that spanned half the country and involved golf carts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, authorities said. Up until then, his lawyer said, Nelson had been a law-abiding citizen. Then came the money troubles and a plan to solve them by stealing “a couple golf carts.”

“[F]rom there it became easier and easier for him to stray from his long held moral compass,” Moeckel said.