A conman already imprisoned for a fake gold mine scheme is to spend an additional 20 years in prison for soliciting the murder of the trial judge, prosecutors and FBI agents in a plot involving a wood chipper.
John Arthur Walthall, 67, has a “serious and severe personality disorder” marked by obsessiveness, compulsiveness, narcissism, paranoia and delusions, but that didn’t hinder his ability to concoct a “diabolical murder scheme” that he knew was “terribly wrong,” U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney said Monday.
“I believe Mr. Walthall is a manipulative, dangerous, angry and sadistic man,” Carney said. “I know of nothing in his life or what he did here that would warrant a sentence less than 20 years. Indeed, justice and respect for the rule of law demand the longest prison sentence authorized by law.”
Prosecutor Fred Sheppard emphasized that Walthall had told his would-be hitmen “if it couldn’t get done, he’d just do it himself when he got out.”
“He wants those people dead,” Sheppard said, referring to now-retired U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford, who presided over Walthall’s fraud trial, as well as the investigating FBI agents, Brad Howard and Frank Bernal, and the prosecutors, assistant U.S. attorneys Mark Takla and Ivy Wang, who’s now in private practice. “He wanted them dead several years ago. He wants them dead now, and he’s going to want them dead in 20 years. The only thing this court can do at this point in time is to put off that harm as long as possible.”
Sheppard said the victims — Howard and Takla were watching from the gallery — “will have to look over their shoulders for as long as this defendant walks the Earth.” He also emphasized that Walthall spoke of harming their family members, “unspeakable acts” motivated solely by federal agents performing their duties.
“It is unforgivable at every level,” Sheppard said. “20 years isn’t even close to what is appropriate for what he tried to do.”
The eight-year prosecution of Walthall included three trials and one trip to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and it follows a jury convicting him of wire fraud in 2012 for an investment scheme that duped a couple in their 80s out of their life savings based on a purported ability to extract gold from abandoned mines. He was arrested in Nevada as a fugitive in 2011 with a gun and a book titled “How to Be Invisible.” Carney on Monday noted Walthall’s ability to obtain firearms, with Sheppard saying Walthall obtained three total, as well as “multiple barrels.”
“He is a con that plays to the audience,” Sheppard said, adding that if Walthall had found the proper audience for his plans, the case could instead be about “multiple dead bodies.”
Guilford presided over the fraud trial and sentenced Walthall to 14 years in prison and $2.5 million in restitution. Walthall was scheduled to be released in 2026, but in 2014, prosecutors secured a new indictment against him for soliciting the murders of Guilford, Howard, Bernall, Takla and Wang while imprisoned in Lompoc, California.
A jury convicted him in 2016 after a mistrial because a previous jury couldn’t reach a verdict. But the Ninth Circuit reversed his conviction in 2019, saying Carney violated Walthall’s Sixth Amendment right by not making “further inquiry” before declining his request to represent himself. Carney then held a competency hearing for Walthall before again declining to allow him to represent himself.
The judge, a 2003 George W. Bush appointee, said after a jury again convicted Walthall in April that the case is the most difficult he’s ever had to manage. He said he feels sorry for the three court-appointed attorneys who have represented Walthall since 2014, the most recent being Charles C. Brown of Pasadena, who replied that he “knew the job was dangerous when I took it.”
Brown’s sentencing memo asked Carney to impose 10 years in prison, “given the fanciful, speculative, and attenuated nature of Mr. Walthall’s purported solicitation.” The lawyer said Monday that Walthall’s words were “reprehensible,” but his plan was essentially a “thought crime” because it was “a dark-twisted revenge fantasy that had no likelihood of success.”
“Mr. Walthall is not an evil mastermind,” Brown said. “Mr. Walthall is damaged individual who escaped through fantasy, and as awful as these fantasies were, Your Honor, they had no chance of succeeding in reality.”
Trial testimony established that Walthall spoke in detail to two inmates about hiring a hit squad to use a wood chipper for their torture and murders. The inmates turned out to be informants who had unsuccessfully tried to talk other inmates into murder plots in hopes of reducing their own prison sentences. Jurors in Walthall’s most recent trial didn’t hear from one, Antonio Rodriguez, because his 30-year prison sentence for drug trafficking was reduced after his earlier testimony, and he was deported to Mexico following Walthall’s first conviction.
Brown filed a motion to dismiss based on Rodriguez’s unavailability as a witness, writing, “the government is in the unique position to make Rodriguez available for trial.” But Rodriguez demanded to be paid $46,000 for his testimony, and Carney determined it was unreasonable for the government to pay that.
Brown said Monday the informants took advantage of the fact that “my client can’t stop talking.”
“He doesn’t know when to stop talking, Your Honor, to the aggravation of many and the aggravation of all,” Brown said. “But that doesn’t make my client out to be some kind of undercover serial killer.”
Walthall testified in his own defense at trial, repeatedly accusing Brown of conspiring against him before Carney cut him off. His combative behavior continued Monday as he demanded more time and insisted Brown wasn’t truly representing him. He also told Carney he wasn’t legally authorized to oversee the case because he’d overseen a mistrial.
“John, you’re not helping yourself. I’m advising you to stop talking,” Brown told him.
Sheppard called it “the continual nonsense that this defendant has engaged in for years, time and time again. Over and over again.”
“Anything to delay or obstruct these proceedings: That is all he has done,” Sheppard told Carney. Sheppard is with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego’s Southern District of California, which took the case because it involves Central District prosecutors.
Monday’s sentencing ended with Walthall telling Carney he had no plans “under such rigged circumstances.” Carney’s clerk instructed the courtroom, “All rise” as the judge left the bench. Marshals then led Walthall away without incident as he told Brown, “Do not file any fake appeals for me. You do not represent me.”
Walthall is the second man to go on trial before Guilford and later be convicted of plotting to murder the judge. In 2018, a federal jury in Fresno deliberated only six minutes before convicting Craig M. Shults of retaliating against a federal official by threat while serving a 90-month sentence Guilford imposed in 2014 for a real-estate flipping scheme.
Shults was sentenced to five years to be served consecutive with his original sentence, just as Walthall’s 20-year sentence is to be served consecutively with his 14-year sentence. That means he’ll remain behind bars until about 2046.
A 2006 Bush appointee, Guilford retired in January 2020 and now works as a private mediator and arbitrator.
Read the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s sentencing memorandum for Walthall below:
[Images: jail booking photo and screenshot from UC Irvine School of Law / YouTube]
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