She nearly pleaded guilty to fraud in a Dixon movie studio scheme. Then she collapsed in court

Here’s Carissa Carpenter before the Dixon movie studio deal went south

For 16 years, Carissa Carpenter peddled a glitzy dream of building a massive movie studio in the rural reaches of Northern California. It all came apart in 2013, when The Bee looked into her flashing studio proposal in Dixon.
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For 16 years, Carissa Carpenter peddled a glitzy dream of building a massive movie studio in the rural reaches of Northern California. It all came apart in 2013, when The Bee looked into her flashing studio proposal in Dixon.

Accused Dixon movie studio con artist Carissa Carpenter came close Friday to pleading guilty to fraud and lying to the FBI, but suddenly fainted in court as she was trying to engage a federal judge in Sacramento over the terms of her plea agreement.

Carpenter, 55, signed documents Thursday that would have allowed her to plead guilty to three of the 32 felony counts she has faced since 2014, a move that could finally have ended decades of efforts to find investors to pay for her purported movie studio.

She made it through an hour of the proceedings, alternately complaining and weeping about the poor state of her health, hedging over whether she would take responsibility for the crimes described in the agreement and predicting her own untimely demise.

"I am in poor health and probably terminal, so I am scared," Carpenter told U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. as he quizzed her about whether she had voluntarily entered into the plea agreement and understood the ramifications.

"I can't do this anymore," Carpenter said, noting that she has been held in custody for 10 months since her bail was revoked last year. "I can't fight anymore.

"I don't want my family to go through this any more and my friends and business associates."

At one point Carpenter asked the judge if the report that is typically compiled for the judge before sentencing could be expedited.

"If I don't get help for my body I won't be able to last very long," she said. "I need surgery."

Carpenter court appear
Carissa Carpenter, accused of fraud and lying to the FBI, came close to pleading guilty Friday, July 6, 2018 before she fainted in court as she was questioned by U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. She was wheeled out to an ambulance on a gurney, and her court proceeding was delayed to Thursday, July 12. Sam Stanton sstanton@sacbee.com

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Todd Pickles and Rosanne Rust waited as Burrell tried to guide Carpenter through what was supposed to be a change of plea hearing that would eliminate the need for her scheduled August trial on charges of wire and mail fraud and of lying to the FBI.

But, as Burrell sought assurances that she was taking responsibility for her actions, which prosecutors say defrauded investors of more than $5 million, she deflected or interrupted with confusing explanations.

"Part of what you just said is a very broad description of things I did not do," Carpenter said at one point.

Finally, the judge asked Pickles to read through the plea agreement documents sentence by sentence, pausing after each one to ask if she understood it.

The parties came to a road block when Pickles read a portion of the documents in which Carpenter was conceding she misled investors by using the names of Star Wars creator George Lucas and producer Howard Kazanjian to prove her Hollywood bonafides.

"The one word that should be taken out of there is George Lucas," Carpenter argued.

"Howard Kazanjian was the president of my studio for 16 years," she said, but argued that Lucas' name, which she invoked in years past as someone who worked with her behind the scenes, should be removed. Lucas has denied knowing anything about her.

Finally, she relented.

When the judge got to a portion in the documents where Carpenter is described as stealing the work product of architectural firms and others to use as her own, she dropped to the left out of her chair and onto the floor.

Burrell ordered a 20-minute break as two medical workers arrived to take her blood pressure. Then, a team of Sacramento Fire Department paramedics arrived and wheeled her on a stretcher out of the 13th floor courtroom to an ambulance waiting on the street outside the downtown federal courthouse.

Burrell returned to the bench and ordered the case postponed to Thursday, when Carpenter can either change her plea to guilty or prepare for trial.

Friday's events marked the second time Carpenter has fainted during court proceedings, and she has complained for years that she is in frail health.

So far, she has gone through more than three years of hearings, three different defense lawyers and four attempts to make bail. The plea agreement itself contained an escape clause that would allow her to back out of it if she can find another judge who will let her fire Manning, something she has attempted previously but which the judge has rejected.

Manning made a pitch last week to avoid the drama that played out, asking to have Carpenter appear by video feed from the federal lockup in Pahrump, Nev., where she has been held since January after winning transfer out of the Sacramento County Main Jail. Carpenter had complained that her numerous health ailments were being exacerbated by conditions in the jail and said she had been the victim of "threats and intimidation" by jail staff while held there.

"Ms. Carpenter has a lengthy, well documented, medical history which includes diagnosis of and treatment for: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (since 2014 defendant has had multiple vascular surveys and two operations to remove scar tissue); Multiple heart attacks and/or cardiac incidents; Vascular blockage; Multiple strokes due to Adams' Syndrome; Multiple pacemakers installed; Broken pacemaker wire that needed to be replaced; Multiple blood clots - 3 were removed; Peptic Ulcer; Upper first rib removed; Arthritis in her back and hips; Partial mastectomy due to breast cancer (implant subsequently developed a leak leading to additional and on-going issues); Lymph nodes removed; Ovarian cancer; Ms. Carpenter is in constant pain and therefore worked with a Pain Management Specialist; Vasovagal Syncope; Cervical cancer; History of Colitis; Pericarditis (infection around the heart); Post-surgical staph infection," Manning wrote.

He added: "This list is likely incomplete."

Manning argued in court papers that a 14-hour bus ride from Pahrump to Sacramento "may jeopardize" her health, but Burrell rejected the request in a one-sentence order and she was booked into the jail downtown Monday night.

Carpenter was indicted by a federal grand jury in October 2014 of siphoning off millions of dollars from investors who believed in her plans to construct a massive movie studio project.

Her efforts spanned 17 years and ended in the Solano County farm town of Dixon in 2013, where she won the city's blessing to construct a $2.8 billion studio she said would employ more than 1,000 workers and produce a $200 million annual "philanthropy budget" that would provide charitable donations to civic causes in Dixon, which has a population of just under 20,000 residents.

The project collapsed following the June 2013 publication of a Sacramento Bee investigation that revealed she owned no property, failed to pay bills, had been the subject of numerous liens and had more than $1 million in unpaid court-ordered judgments from lawsuits filed against her.

Carpenter remained free on bail until last August, when she was ordered to jail after violating the terms of her pre-trial release by traveling across the country without notifying authorities, contacting potential witnesses in the case and allegedly continuing her efforts at fundraising for a studio project using the alias "Lady Carissa."

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