The judge said he could not fathom the defendant's behavior, which cost Frederick Scott Salyer his fortune, his social standing and, ultimately, his freedom.
The prosecutor called him a "bad guy," so flawed that he surrounded himself with "sycophants and toadies and yes men."
Salyer's own lawyer cited his client's arrogance, alcoholism and "frat boy" countenance captured on government wiretaps.
Even Salyer himself conceded he had wrecked his lucrative career and betrayed the trust of employees, friends and family members.
"My life is effectively over," the 57-year-old tomato king of California said in federal court in Sacramento on Tuesday morning as he pleaded for leniency in a racketeering and price-fixing case the government has pursued for nearly six years.
In the end, Salyer got a six-year sentence and the judge recommended that he serve it in the minimum-security prison camp at Lompoc, 175 miles north of Los Angeles.
He was ordered to report April 9.
His sentencing by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton came after about an hour of back-and-forth between the attorneys and an emotional plea to the judge by Salyer that left his two grown daughters weeping in the overflow audience.
"I regret my behavior and I take full responsibility for my conduct," the onetime head of Monterey's SK Foods LP told Karlton as he read from a prepared text. "I'm sorry for my actions, and I will regret that for the rest of my life."
Prosecutors sought a seven-year sentence, while Salyer's lawyers fought for a four-year term. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said after the hearing Salyer got what he deserved.
"Obviously, it's a tremendous fall from power for Mr. Salyer," Wagner said. "He was one of the richest and most influential people in the agriculture industry in California
"He managed SK Foods down a path of crime and racketeering that made corruption an everyday part of his business plan. And I think today he reaped what he sowed."
Prosecutors also had sought a fine of more than $1 million for Salyer, whose forefathers were agriculture pioneers in California's Central Valley. But Karlton noted that Salyer already faces $162 million in judgments against him. "The guy is broke," Karlton noted. "He's more than broke. There's no money to pay a fine with."
Much of the hearing in the 15th-floor courtroom focused on whether Salyer truly was repentant and how much time he should spend in prison.
His family members, business associates and boyhood friends packed the courtroom. Outside, photographers waited on the courthouse steps to capture images of Salyer and his supporters, including one woman who arrived in a BMW SUV sporting a license plate frame reading "tomato princess."
Salyer's lawyers argued that he already had spent seven months of "truly hard time" in the Sacramento County jail, as well as two years of detention at his sprawling Pebble Beach hilltop home.
Karlton came to the bench saying he was torn over how much of a sentence to impose,adding that he wanted to send a message to the business and food industry that the rampant bribery and corruption exposed by the Salyer investigation cannot be tolerated.
"I can see an argument for four years and I can see an argument for seven years," Karlton said.
Salyer's lawyer, Elliot Peters, argued that four years was "a very, very serious sentence. There's no risk that the message won't be coming out of this courtroom."
Karlton declared at the start of the hearing that "it's time for this case to end."
But he made it clear that he remains mystified by Salyer's behavior.
"He brought every bit of this on himself," the judge said. "I can't understand the defendant's motivation. Here's a millionaire who risks everything for nothing."
Peters assured the judge that his client is "tremendously chastened by what he's done and what he has thrown away."
He added that Salyer's arrogance and alcoholism played a role, but he also blamed associates Salyer listened to who were "amoral."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal countered that Sal yer "was cheating in business for decades" prior to the crimes that form the basis for the prosecution, and that he was "kind of disabled by his own character."
When the judge noted that Salyer's lawyers had submitted a wealth of letters to the court from people urging leniency and recounting Sal yer's giving character, Segal replied: "He's got his jeweler in there, he's got the couple who sold him his yacht, he's got his dog breeder."
The prosecutor said he suspects the letter writers were relying on Salyer's version of the case.
Finally, Karlton said he wanted to hear directly from Salyer before deciding, and the former business titan stood up and acknowledged that "my business career is over."
However, he asked for a sentence that would leave enough of his life after being released to be able to help others, including children in underdeveloped countries.
"I know in my heart I can right my own wrongs," he told Karlton. "I beg this court to grant me leniency."
Karlton recessed court for 10 minutes to think it over, then returned and imposed the six years. He made no mention of giving Salyer credit for the time he did in jail.
The judge said his inclination is not to impose restitution and, instead, let the entities claiming to be victims of Salyer's criminal deeds thrash it out in the multitude of civil fraud, unfair competition and antitrust actions they have filed against him.
At Segal's request, however, he set a further hearing on the matter for March 12.
Salyer left court without speaking to reporters, although a website purportedly set up by his supporters had indicated he would have something to say outside court.
That website portrays the government's case as an overzealous attack and spins a web of sometimes bizarre conspiracy theories, including two supposed attempts to run Salyer off the road in 2009 by a mysterious driver and the discovery of an eerie intruder at his home last May.
"The Department of Justice sharpened the inside of the ankle bracelet they outfitted Mr. Salyer with in preparation for his departure from jail, it keeps cutting his leg," the website claims in one section, and includes a photo of a scarred ankle.
U. S. Attorney Wagner said he was familiar with the website, www.scott-salyer.com, although he said it is unclear precisely how much control Salyer has of the content, if any. But he added that its existence did not surprise him.
"Mr Salyer has demonstrated that he's a manipulator, and that's really what the evidence in the case showed," Wagner said. "It would not surprise me at all to find that he's saying things or will say things in the coming days that are very different from what he told the court today."