Ira Hatch trial could take important turn later this week

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — It might be tough to believe for anyone who has watched nearly three weeks of tedious testimony from the state’s witnesses in the Ira Hatch theft trial, but there is an end in sight.

Prosecutors, while not revealing the details of their strategy, have said they are saving the best — or the worst, depending on how one looks at it — for last.

So far, the vast majority of the witnesses called have fallen into two categories.They have been either former employees testifying about financial records and client files so all those documents could be accepted into evidence, or alleged victims corroborating copies of checks and contracts to establish that they had lost money entrusted to Hatch.

As a result of about $4 million of that allegedly missing money, Hatch was arrested by the Vero Beach Police Department on Jan. 11, 2008, and is facing 46 felony charges ranging from grand theft to racketeering to money laundering.

The witnesses’ stories have been repetitive — client and/or Realtor deposited money, firm closed on Sept. 4, 2007, client asked for money back, money was never refunded. The day-to-day witness testimony has been the same sequence of events over and over with different names, dates and dollar amounts attached.

Other than the three former Hatch employees and one Realtor who pointed to Hatch in the courtroom and identified the defendant by his clothing, none of the witnesses who testified so far had any personal dealings with the disbarred attorney.

There were about 150 witnesses on the state’s list before the trial began. A few of the charges were dropped or segregated, postponed for a separate, later trial, reducing the number of witnesses to about 108.

Investigators on the case, crime scene experts and business associates of Hatch, including his former law partner Kevin Doty, are expected to testify before the state rests its case.

At the start of the trial, Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans said that jurors would hear from someone from the Schlitt family’s group of real estate companies, people whom Hatch convinced to hand over nearly $800,000 in last months’ rents and security deposits and down payments to Coastal Escrow Services. That money, the state alleges, was used to cover money owed to previous depositors.

“If all depositors had demanded their money at the same time, you will see that there was no way Mr. Hatch could have paid them,” Evans said. “As long as Mr. Hatch was able to bring in new depositors he was able to pay for the closings of the old depositors.”

Evans continued to illustrate how Hatch constantly recruited new and larger depositors to keep Coastal Escrow afloat as old depositors requested their funds back — funds that had already been transferred to Hatch & Doty and allegedly spent by Hatch on business expenses and a lavish personal lifestyle.

Evans described the arrangement as a huge “Ponzi scheme” where clients lost about $4 million.

Former Coastal Escrow bookkeeper Janette Granberg said during the first week of trial that Hatch told her on numerous occasions when she questioned the dwindling bank balances that he “had a plan.” The state alleges that Hatch actually had several plans, some which panned out and some which didn’t

One upcoming witness is expected to testify to what the state called “The Canadian Plan,” a plan which failed.

In “The Canadian Plan,” Hatch purportedly tried to gain the trust of a Canadian real estate investor so as to get the investor’s millions of dollars placed into escrow, a payment toward a hotel development Hatch was working on in Orlando. Evans said the plan was to use those millions to float Coastal Escrow and Hatch & Doty for a little while longer.

When the investor didn’t take Hatch up on his offer in the summer of 2007, the deal fell through, and Coastal Escrow closed shortly after.

“At some point Mr. Hatch ran out of depositors, and for Mr. Hatch, that date came around Labor Day 2007,” Evans said.

The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Courtroom 1 on the second floor of the Indian River County Courthouse. Senior Judge James Midelis presides over the trial, which is being heard by a jury of six plus four alternates.

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