A state judge in Ventura has ruled in a preliminary hearing that the fraud case against Sharon Palmer and James Stewart, of Rawesome Food Club fame, will move to a trial. A jury trial could come as early as May or June. The original charges were softened a bit when the Ventura District Attorney’s lawyer said ten “overt acts” would be eliminated from the original charges.
The case grows out of several hundred thousand dollars of loans made by a number of Rawesome members and other supporters of sustainable farming to Sharon Palmer, to help her launch Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula, CA, back in 2008. Among the arguments and testimony that came out during the three-day hearing that just ended yesterday, and that members of a jury may well have to ponder, are the following:
* The victims of the alleged fraud didn’t file complaints. Apparently none of the five parties cited in the state’s case that advanced money to Palmer in 2008 were upset enough to demand that the state go after the controversial farmer. One is understood to have sought a lien on the farm to retrieve the loaned funds.
* The lenders made money available to Palmer to set up the farming operation, as opposed to financing acquisition of the land. Palmer never gained ownership of the land–rather, she leased the land from a Los Angeles real estate investor and Rawesome member, Larry Otting, who had used his credit to obtain a bank loan on the land.
* Ironically, Otting, together with Rawesome co-founder Aajonus Vonderplanitz, were the ones who tipped Ventura County authorities off to the alleged fraud, back in 2010. An investigator with the Ventura County District Attorney testified the two approached the authorities with complaints about Palmer. Vonderplanitz was understood to have been upset because he thought Palmer was substituting conventional factory food for food she supposedly raised on her farm. The authorities didn’t consider that a serious enough offense to pursue. And Otting was understood to have complained about what he said were Palmer’s late payments on her lease, and other related transgressions. Those allegations intrigued the authorities enough that they launched the investigation that led to the charges being filed against Palmer and Stewart, as well as against Otting himself.
* Otting cut a deal with prosecutors whereby the eleven counts of grand theft and money laundering against him were reduced to one count of grand theft. He testified during the hearing just ended about his role in the case, and presumably will testify again during the trial. Moreover, he no longer has to post the $80,000 bail he posted a couple weeks back.
* Another of the defendants, Rawesome co-founder James Stewart, barely came up during the proceedings. While he is accused in all 37 counts of fraud-related charges in the case, none of those who testified during the hearing seemed able to associate him with anything beyond putting Palmer in contact with Otting back in 2008. Indeed, the prosecution sought to tie him to something known as “Sustainable Community.” Testimony never revealed what that was. The prosecution argued, though, that the single act of bringing Otting and Palmer together launched the “conspiracy” whereby Otting acted as a “straw purchaser” on behalf of Palmer.
* Though Palmer is also charged in all 37 counts, she didnt seem to quite fit the image of the leader of a massive fraud who dupes people out of their money and disappears. At least two of those who loaned her money said during the hearing that she has kept in regular contact with them about delays in repaying the loans, and her intention to make good on the money. Two of the victims are understood to have even put up money in connection with ongoing efforts to secure bail for her, and indeed, she was released after being held for more than three weeks after being arrested on the Ventura fraud charges.
It’s not easy to make sense out of these proceedings, any more than the original case launched against Palmer and Stewart last August by the Los Angeles County District Attorney…except that the authorities don’t much care for James Stewart and Sharon Palmer.