Local News

Ex-lawyer pleads guilty to embezzlement

Posted May 1, 2008 2:54 p.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2008 11:35 p.m. EDT

— A former Chapel Hill lawyer who was on the run for more than a year was sentenced Thursday to at least nine years in prison for stealing more than $800,000 from clients.

John Gregory McCormick, 60, pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement and four lesser theft charges. He was sentenced to 108 to 139 months in prison.

"I don't know what I was thinking," McCormick said in court Thursday while apologizing to his family, friends and clients.

He said he never intended to hurt anyone and should never have run off.

McCormick went missing on July 13, 2006, when his car was found abandoned at an Orange County entrance to Duke Forest. At about the same time, authorities began looking into allegations that money was missing from the accounts of McCormick's clients.

Although the charges against McCormick were for the theft of $802,000, Gil Whitford, an agent in the State Bureau of Investigation's financial crimes unit, testified Thursday that authorities have documented at least $1.6 million was stolen from McCormick's clients.

Police arrested McCormick last August in Phoenix, where he was found sitting on a park bench with two homeless men. He had 6 cents in his pocket at the time.

The arrest ended a 13-month international search that included checks of airline passenger lists, credit card records and other databases for a trace of the missing attorney. At one point, he reportedly was seen in Central or South America.

FBI agents searched for McCormick in Spain to follow a tip that he had been seen there, prosecutors said Thursday. Defense attorneys said he was never in Spain and spent much of his time in New Orleans, where he was robbed, and Phoenix, where he wound up in a homeless shelter.

Prosecutors called McCormick arrogant and selfish, saying he was an alcoholic with a drug habit. The defense painted a different picture as it sought a lenient sentence, calling him kind, thoughtful and gentle.

Before he left town, attorneys noted, he deposited $35,000 in his children's bank accounts.

A bankruptcy court liquidated McCormick's estate in December, and defense attorneys said clients from whom he stole money would be repaid from the $4.4 million obtained in the sales.

McCormick also represented Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools for 20 years, but district officials said he never had any access to school funds.

The North Carolina State Bar disbarred McCormick a year ago, ruling that he had violated ethics rules.

Federal authorities also have charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.