Sunday, January 25, 2004

Fugitive developer arrested in N.Y.

City lost $184,172 in theater plan

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jacqueline Humphries was never truly worried about the disappearance of her nephew, LaShawn Pettus-Brown.

Nevertheless, she is relieved by Saturday's announcement that federal authorities in the New York area arrested the 27-year-old fugitive developer. His plans for Over-the-Rhine's Empire Theatre filled Cincinnati city leaders with dreams of revitalization, but only emptied city coffers of $184,172.

"I'm just glad he got caught," said the Corryville woman, who says she, too, was a victim of her nephew's ambition.

Pettus-Brown, a one-time concert promoter and former Japanese league basketball player, was taken into custody Friday night. He is charged with one federal count of wire fraud for allegedly obtaining funds from the city of Cincinnati under false pretenses.

Pettus-Brown won approval from City Council in June 2002 for $220,000 in city loans and grants to fix up the 90-year-old theater at 1521 Vine St. It was the first step, Mayor Charlie Luken said at the time, in a sweeping plan to revitalize Vine Street.

Seven months later, Pettus-Brown vanished.

FBI officials released minimal information about the arrest in a news release Saturday afternoon. It said that Pettus-Brown would be returned to Cincinnati. Agents in New York and Cincinnati could not be reached for further comment.

Humphries contends her nephew tricked her into transferring ownership of a house she owns at 3251 Vine St.

She said he told her he would revamp the building so it could be used as housing for Japanese exchange students and that she would benefit financially from the project.

But it never happened. In 2003, she sued her nephew and won back her house, along with more than $80,000 in damages, according to court records.

The smile Pettus-Brown wears in his mug shot on Saturday's news release is telling, Humphries said.

"He's arrogant," she said. "He always expects things to go his way."

She had no details of how her nephew came to be in New York, especially when earlier FBI reports speculated that he might be in Los Angeles.

"I could see how he would be (in California). We have relatives out there. But we don't know anybody in New York," she said.

Pettus-Brown's arrest was welcome news to Cincinnati City Councilman Pat DeWine, a Republican who voted against lending Pettus-Brown the money for his Empire Theatre endeavor.

"People shouldn't lose sight of the fact that two things went wrong here - No. 1: A person was trying to rip off the city. No. 2: City Council was asleep at the wheel," he said.

As for the money Pettus-Brown is accused of bilking from the city, DeWine doubts it'll be returned.

"My sense is that it's gone," he said. "He went through the money and now has no assets."

City officials had previously believed that all of the $184,000 invested in the project went toward work on the theater, but that the project collapsed because Pettus-Brown could not get a bank to finance the project.

Humphries said she believes her nephew used her house as collateral to convince city officials that he could repay his debt. But she doesn't believe he intentionally planned to do anything criminal.

"I think he just got caught up," she said. "He's too intelligent for that. I think he was robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The wire fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.


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