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Hawks Ridge fraud case takes unexpected turn

Charges dropped

November 19, 2009
By JOHN PEPIN Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - The prosecutor in the Hawks Ridge Condominiums fraud case said rather than a disappointment, the full dismissal Wednesday of all charges against three of the five defendants is "a very positive development."

At the request of prosecutor David Payant, Marquette County District Court Judge Roger Kangas signed orders Wednesday dismissing all counts against Ryan Bruns, 36, of Marquette, Brian Swift, 48, originally from Escanaba, and Chad LaVallie, 36, originally from Kingsford, who both live in the Chicago area.

A preliminary examination adjourned Nov. 9 until 9 a.m. Dec. 1 will continue for Michael Gokey, 43, of Marquette and Joel Westrom, 40, who was from Marquette but most recently lived in Texas.

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All five of the defendants - partners or employees of Tristar Development - were charged with four fraud-related felonies related to development of the latter phases of the Hawks Ridge Condominium complex in Marquette.

"Mister Bruns, Mister Swift and Mister LaVallie will be assisting the prosecution," Payant said.

Karl Numinen, attorney for Bruns, said the dismissals came after witness testimony during the first day of the preliminary examination and subsequent discussions between the three defendants, their attorneys, police and prosecutors.

"I would say it's an extraordinary development," Numinen said.

Witness Gerald Kovach of Gwinn testified Nov. 9 he and his mother Eleanor were offered a reduced price for a condominium at a meeting with Tristar Development representatives Michael Gokey and Joel Westrom in 2007.

Kovach said $75,000 was given to Tristar via Westrom and Gokey on June 1, 2007, by his mother. No condominium was ever built for Kovach. Kovach testified he had no dealings with Bruns, Swift nor LaVallie and had never met them.

"I think the testimony that was elicited during the preliminary exam showed who was liable here," Numinen said.

Attorney Frank Stupak, representing Swift and LaVallie, said his clients and Bruns returned $75,000 to the Kovach family Wednesday.

"They agreed to make reimbursement of the $75,000 that was paid," Stupak said.

Stupak emphasized the money was not restitution, but rather an effort on behalf of the three cleared defendants to make things right, born out of their feeling "horrible" about the situation.

"Chad, Ryan and I have been sold a bill of goods since day one," Swift said. "It's very important for people to understand that these guys (Gokey and Westrom) are the worst of the worst scam artists."

Swift said he, Bruns and LaVallie are happy the charges were dropped.

"We hope now the prosecution and the police are going to focus their attention on who the culprits really are," Swift said.

Westrom attorney Sarah Henderson and Gokey attorney Andrew Griffin were unavailable for comment by press time today.

As he did at the preliminary examination, Numinen said Wednesday that when improprieties were first discovered, Bruns paid for a forensic accounting of the Hawks Ridge dealings, which was turned over to detectives.

Throughout the investigation, Bruns, Swift and LaVallie urged police to move forward with the case, providing a good deal of information.

Numinen said Swift and LaVallie met with Payant Wednesday morning and Bruns met with the prosecutor in the afternoon.

"We did a complete recitation of this investigation," Numinen said.

All of the statements the three had made to police were reviewed.

"Based on a reassessment of their involvement, the prosecutor agreed with me to dismiss the charges," Numinen said.

Payant declined to comment on whether the testimony of the three cleared defendants will now strengthen the state's case against Westrom and Gokey.

Stupak said a plea agreement was offered to Bruns, Swift and LaVallie by the prosecution early in the case, which they declined because of their innocence.

"There's no way these guys would plead to anything," Stupak said. "Even though there was the association through Tristar, there was no intent to defraud."

A relieved Swift said Wednesday: "I knew in the end the truth would come out and thank God it has."



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