The last act for Carissa Carpenter came Thursday in federal court in Sacramento, where the self-described movie studio executive pleaded guilty in an elaborate scheme that prosecutors say swindled investors out of million of dollars.
Carpenter, 55, pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and one count of lying to the FBI in a plea agreement that, in theory, could net her up to 45 years in prison for taking investors’ money for failed movie studio projects, including her last effort in Dixon..
The guilty plea came six days after Carpenter had appeared before U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. and fainted before she could complete the proceedings.
On Thursday, Burrell took great pains to ensure that she was healthy and alert enough to agree to the guilty plea, asking her if she was under the influence of any drugs.
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Carpenter, who has blamed myriad health problems for her financial and legal woes, told the judge that she had taken various medications, including nitroglycerine tablets, which she said she takes at the rate of five per day. She added that she knows the dosage is extreme, but said that “versus my 12th heart attack it is my only other option.”
Carpenter appeared to faint last Friday after taking nitroglycerine tablets, and agreed to Burrell’s request Thursday that she hand her small bottle of medication over to a U.S. Marshal unless she decided she needed it.
She agreed, and allowed the hearing to proceed without incident as the judge asked her questions about whether she fully understood the ramifications of pleading guilty.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Todd Pickles and Rosanne Rust, who guided the case to its conclusion despite Carpenter’s erratic behavior, her insistence that she is innocent and her repeated efforts to fire her court-appointed attorneys, sat at the prosecutors’ table patiently as Burrell proceeded.
Finally, Pickles asked the judge to ensure that Carpenter agree she was pleading guilty because she is, in fact, guilty, and Carpenter did so.
Her countenance was far removed from the brash, self-described businesswoman who led a series of efforts to build a movie studio somewhere in Northern California and collected millions from investors eager to be involved in a Hollywood-style effort, one that she claimed included backing from entertainment giants like Star Wars creator George Lucas.
Prosecutors say the claims were lies, and Carpenter remained soft-spoken and quiet throughout the hearing, limiting most of her responses to saying, “Yes, your honor.”
She faces sentencing on Sept. 28, and Burrell warned her that regardless of the plea agreement, which does not specify a recommended sentence, he could sentence her to 20 years on each of the mail fraud charges and five years on the third count for a total of 45 years.
He also told her that she could face a fine of up to $750,000 — or double the amount lost in the fraud — and be required to pay restitution.
Finally, after saying the word “Guilty” and having the judge accept the plea, Carpenter interrupted at the end to tell the judge she had something to say.
“I just wanted to say thank you for your tolerance and patience with me last week,” she said.
Court adjourned and for a moment she sat motionless at the defense table, then dropped her head face down on the table in what appeared to be another fainting spell.
Moments later, however, she raised her head and told the marshal she did not need her medication, then was led away.
Carpenter’s efforts over nearly 20 years followed much the same pattern, although the size of her proposals ballooned over the years, as did her outreach nationwide to potential investors.
She began in 1997 with a proposed 1-million-square-foot studio project that would have straddled the Sacramento and El Dorado county lines.
That never went anywhere, so she turned her attention in October 2000 to Sutter County, just north of what was then Arco Arena.
The Sutter County site off Riego Road was described as a $450 million studio and resort that would include a golf course, restaurants and offices and equestrian trials. County planning officials said that after initial talks she and her group disappeared.
She turned up next in South Carolina in January 2001 to pitch a $400 million to $500 million Disney-style animation studio, dining with the governor and flying about the state to scout locations. Nothing came of it.
Next up was Lathrop, a community south of Stockton where Carpenter focused her most sustained and grandiose efforts between 2004 and 2010.
There, she proposed a $3.49 billion “city within a city” that was to include 12,000 homes, the world’s largest movie studio, a water park and a theme park, a gaming club, three major hotels, a golf course and convention center large enough to host a national political convention and a cancer and heart treatment center.
That project, outlined in a 57-page “confidential” business plan obtained by The Bee in 2013, attracted investors from Utah and elsewhere who pumped in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the River Islands project, into which Carpenter said she had invested between $67 million and $123 million of her own money.
The only problem? She didn’t own any part of the land or the River Islands project, the developers told The Bee, an issue that is noted in her plea agreement documents.
“With respect to the purported studio development in Lathrop, Carpenter often falsely represented that she owned the land where the studio was to be built,” the documents say. “In truth, Carpenter did not own the land.”
The documents also say her claims to have pumped millions of dollars of her own money into the development “were false statements” and form the basis of the charge that she lied to the FBI about it.
That conversation took place July 16, 2013, when Carpenter called the FBI “to ostensibly thank them for investigating her claim of identity theft (there was no such investigation),” according to court documents Carpenter signed on July 5.
Carpenter gave up on Lathrop in 2010 (the River Islands developers have said they told her to go away), and she moved onto Vallejo, where in September 2010 she pitched a $1 billion studio on Mare Island. She initially came up with a $50,000 check the city demanded before proceeding, but the proposal fell apart after she failed to come up with any more money, a city official said.
In October 2011 she proposed a 1.2-million-square-foot studio that would create 5,800 jobs near Crow’s Landing in Stanislaus County. That went nowhere, and she turned up next in Dixon in July 2012, touting a $2.8 billion project that she said would be funded entirely by private investors and open in 2015.
Not a spade of earth was turned, and prosecutors say in court documents that “the Hollywood executives or contacts she boasted of to investors were not involved at all or, at the very least, did not have the extent of the connections to the project that she claimed.”
“Instead of spending the money on the project or taking any tangible steps for its fruition, Carpenter used the money to support her extravagant lifestyle,” the plea agreement documents say.