United States v. Vinson, 15-4384

Decision Date24 March 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15-4384,15-4384
Citation852 F.3d 333
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff–Appellee, v. Keith Arthur VINSON, Defendant–Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: John Clark Fischer, RANDOLPH AND FISCHER, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellant. Amy Elizabeth Ray, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Jill Westmoreland Rose, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before MOTZ, KING, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge King wrote the opinion, in which Judge Motz and Judge Duncan joined.

KING, Circuit Judge:

In October 2013, Keith Arthur Vinson was convicted in the Western District of North Carolina of various offenses arising from his leadership of schemes wherein fraud was systematically utilized to keep his real estate empire afloat. Vinson has appealed, contending primarily that the prosecution presented insufficient evidence of the crimes alleged. He also maintains that the trial court gave the jury an erroneous and prejudicial willful blindness instruction, and that his aggregate sentence of 216 months is substantively unreasonable. As explained below, we reject each of his contentions and affirm.

I.
A.

From approximately 2010 and culminating in this prosecution, the FBI, the IRS, and the United States Attorney in western North Carolina conducted a protracted investigation into the fraudulent activities discussed herein. Prior to the initial indictment against Vinson, the government had already convicted several of his cohorts and obtained their cooperation. Those men included George "Buddy" Greenwood, David G. Smith, and Robert Craig Gourlay. For example, in February 2011, the grand jury in Asheville indicted Greenwood for misapplication of bank funds and money laundering. Greenwood pleaded guilty to those charges on June 16, 2011. In October 2011, the United States Attorney filed an information charging Smith with a conspiracy to commit various offenses and Gourlay with misapplication of bank funds and money laundering. Smith and Gourlay pleaded guilty on November 1, 2011, to the charges against them.

Vinson was initially indicted by the grand jury in April 2012 on multiple federal charges, including conspiracy, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. In addition to Vinson, that indictment charged Avery "Buck" Cashion III and his wife, Joan Cashion, plus Raymond M. Chapman and Thomas E. Durham, Jr. A superseding indictment, returned in early December 2012, lodged charges against Vinson, Buck Cashion, Chapman, Durham, and two additional defendants, George M. Gabler and Aaron Ollis.

In January 2013, the charges in the initial indictment against Joan Cashion were dismissed. Soon thereafter, in February 2013, the United States Attorney filed an information charging Andrew Hager with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States. Hager pleaded guilty to that charge on March 11, 2013. On September 18, 2013, Buck Cashion and Chapman pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges in the superseding indictment. Less than a week later, on September 24, 2013, Gabler pleaded guilty to an information charging misprision of a felony. Durham and Ollis also pleaded guilty on that occasion, to conspiracy charges lodged in the superseding indictment. Pursuant to agreements with the United States Attorney, those defendants cooperated in the ongoing investigation and related prosecutions.

On October 1, 2013—fifteen months after the initial indictment and only a week after several of the defendants had pleaded guilty—the grand jury returned another superseding indictment, the operative indictment in this appeal (the "Indictment"). The Indictment named Vinson as the only defendant, but several of those who had pleaded guilty were identified as unindicted coconspirators. The Indictment alleged thirteen charges against Vinson, as follows:

• Count One—That Vinson conspired with Buck Cashion, Chapman, Ollis, Hager, and others to commit bank fraud, in contravention of 18 U.S.C. § 1349 ;
• Count Two—That Vinson conspired with Cashion, Chapman, Ollis, Hager, Greenwood, and others to commit offenses against and to defraud the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 ;
• Counts Three, Four, Five, Six, and Ten—That Vinson, on five occasions, aided and abetted the misapplication of bank funds, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 656 and 2;
• Counts Seven and Eight—That Vinson committed and aided and abetted two wire fraud offenses affecting a bank, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 2;
• Count Nine—That Vinson conspired with Cashion, Chapman, Ollis, Hager, Durham, Gourlay, Smith, and others to commit offenses against and to defraud the United States, in contravention of 18 U.S.C. § 371 ;
• Count Eleven—That Vinson conspired with Cashion, Chapman, and others to commit money laundering, in contravention of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) ; and
• Counts Twelve and Thirteen—That Vinson committed and aided and abetted two money laundering offenses, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1957 and 2.

Vinson was the only alleged conspirator who elected to go to trial. Vinson's jury trial on the Indictment began in Asheville on October 7, 2013, just a week after the Indictment was returned. Several of his cohorts testified for the prosecution, including Buck Cashion, Gourlay, and Hager. The prosecution called at least twenty-six witnesses—such as coconspirators, banking officials, and victims of the alleged criminal activities—and introduced hundreds of documents.

B.

The trial evidence emphasized Vinson's ongoing efforts to defraud various banks and others in seeking to salvage his floundering real estate empire, particularly the Seven Falls Golf and River Club in western North Carolina (the "Seven Falls development," or "Seven Falls").1 Vinson acted through various entities, including Seven Falls LLC, of which he was the principal. In his efforts, Vinson utilized a dizzying array of fraudulent activities, including those referred to herein as the Lot Loan Scheme, the Plastics Plant Scheme, the Check Fraud Scheme, the Burnett Straw Loan, the Worlund Straw Loan, the Zeiger Straw Loan, and the Queens Gap Scheme. Vinson's fraudulent activities contributed to the insolvency of two FDIC-insured banks in western North Carolina—the Bank of Asheville ("BOA") and Pisgah Community Bank ("PCB")—leading the FDIC to become the Receiver for each failed bank.

1. Background

Beginning in about 2006, Vinson implemented a plan to turn approximately 1,600 acres of North Carolina property into the Seven Falls development. Seven Falls was to include luxury homes and condominiums near and around an Arnold Palmer championship golf course outside Hendersonville. In about August 2006, Vinson sought a $6 million land acquisition and development loan (an "A&D loan") for Seven Falls from the National Bank of South Carolina ("NBSC"). To consummate the A&D loan transaction with NBSC, Vinson needed $2 million in seed money, which he did not have on hand. Vinson thus sought assistance from his friend Buck Cashion, a real estate investor and private money lender. Vinson and Cashion had previously been involved together in other business deals, including two high-end housing developments located near Asheville. Vinson advised Cashion, "I'll make it very much worth your while if you'll borrow $2 million for me" for seed money on the NBSC A&D loan. See J.A. 967.2 Cashion agreed to assist Vinson and promptly borrowed $2 million from BOA. In return for Cashion's help, Vinson promised to pay Cashion $4 million.

In January 2007, Vinson obtained additional funds from NBSC for use in the Seven Falls development, increasing the A&D loan from $6 million to about $25 million. Vinson used $4 million of the A&D loan to purchase a dairy farm adjacent to Seven Falls that was to be used for an Arnold Palmer golf academy and another luxury housing development. By the summer of 2007, road construction had commenced at Seven Falls. Around that time, Vinson needed yet more money but ran up against NBSC's loan limit with respect to a single borrower—a restriction imposed under federal banking regulations that constrain how much a particular bank can lend to one borrower.3 To raise additional funds for Seven Falls, Vinson asked Cashion to buy from Vinson the recently acquired dairy farm, which had been appraised at $6.8 million.

In connection with the dairy farm transaction, Cashion used an entity called Zeus Investments, LLC ("Zeus")—which he owned with Chapman and Gabler—to borrow $4 million from NBSC and consummate purchase of the farm.4 Cashion and Zeus had no intention of retaining the farm, however, and Cashion agreed with Vinson that Zeus would simply hold it for thirty days. At that point, Cashion was anticipating the $4 million payment that Vinson had promised in return for Cashion's assistance in obtaining the $2 million in seed money on the NBSC A&D loan. The promised $4 million payment from Vinson, however, was never made.5

In June 2007, Vinson conducted a Founder's Day promotion of Seven Falls at the Biltmore Estate near Asheville. At that lavish event—which included an appearance by Arnold Palmer himself—approximately 500 guests enjoyed alcohol under a "huge festive tent" and witnessed the ribbon cutting for Palmer's "fabulous golf academy." See J.A. 1071. The attendees also received discounts and special benefits for their purchases of Seven Falls lots, including 100% financing of lot purchases through NBSC. After the event, Vinson hosted a Kenny G concert in Asheville. Although the funds Vinson raised at the Founder's Day event were to go toward repayment of the A&D loan from NBSC, "[f]or some reason that money didn't get taken out." Id. at 999. Indeed, NBSC was never repaid for the A&D loan.

By spring 2008, the lot sales at Seven Falls had dwindled due to winter weather and the worsening economy. Vinson was thus unable...

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