SAGUACHE — A 12-member jury found William Alder Lakish not guilty of forgery last Thursday evening but informed District Judge Amanda Hopkins they were hopelessly deadlocked on the criminal impersonation charge.
Hopkins then declared a mistrial on the second charge. It was later learned that only one holdout on the jury prevented a guilty verdict for the impersonation charge from becoming unanimous. The hearing to determine whether the prosecution will retry the case for criminal impersonation will be held July 16.
Lakish appeared in open court Monday after 557 days of legal maneuverings regarding his charges, representing himself pro se. District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen filed the charges in the fall of 2017 after reviewing reports from the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office indicating Lakish could be guilty of improperly representing himself as a member of the White Eagle LLC, a limited liability corporation.
Brian Kramer and Julie O’Halloran of Crestone, also Brian Hendry of Ontario, Canada, were still listed as members of White Eagle LLC when Lakish registered himself as an agent with the Secretary of State’s Office May 11, 2017. The lodge closed in 2012 after pipes burst in December of 2011, flooding the entire structure and eventually causing the growth of black mold throughout the building.
Curtis Belcher, then acting as a state-appointed assistant to the assessor’s office, declared the building uninhabitable in 2012 owing to foundation and other problems. The building’s uninhabitable status was then confirmed by other agencies.
Lakish later worked a deal with Saguache County Commissioners and County Treasurer Connie Trujillo to take over taxes owed on the building, after registering as an agent for the property. Any citizen in Saguache County can request to pay back taxes during a tax lien sale and assume responsibility for taxes on delinquent properties without representing themselves as having any actual interest in the property.
During jury selection, Lakish alleged that his case had been tried in the press by the Center Post-Dispatch, and a subpoena was issued to reporter Teresa Benns. Lakish claimed throughout the trial that Benns had an adversarial relationship with the Lakish family, accusing the reporter of bringing the plaintiffs’ attention to his registering as an agent. Benns denied his allegations.
Prior to the proceedings, District Judge Amanda Hopkins indicated she had not been given sufficient time to prepare for a pro se defendant going to trial but would manage as best she could. Assistant District Attorney Merida Zerbi later echoed Hopkins’ misgivings. At the advice of former District Judge Patrick Hayes during an earlier hearing, Lakish did for a time retain counsel, but fired his attorney June 20, three days before the jury trial began.
Zerbi laid out the facts in the case, explaining that the LLC was owned by Kramer, O’Halloran and Hendry at the time Lakish transferred agent status to his own name. She noted that Hendry had been ill for many years (and while assumed dead by Lakish, as he later testified, was actually alive and living in Canada. Hendry was the agent responsible for making major decisions for the LLC).
“A corporation has rules,” Zerbi pointed out. “Certain individuals had the authority to do certain things. That statement of authority was filed [by Kramer, O’Halloran and Hendry] in 2011,” when the White Eagle lodge was first purchased.
In his opening statement Lakish said he would prove the deal to register as an agent was conducted on a handshake, and witnesses would testify to this. He told the jury he would present documents showing the plaintiffs’ names and Hendry’s had been removed from the state database for non-payment of annual fees owed for LLC registration. “It’s a matter of he said, she said,” Lakish claimed. “Decide for yourselves.”
The first witness to testify was Saguache County Undersheriff James McCloskey. In his examination by Zerbi, McCloskey told Zerbi that in order to establish ownership necessary for creating an LLC, a warranty deed had to be filed with the Saguache County Clerk and Recorder, and this was done by O’Halloran, Kramer and Hendry. McCloskey said he confirmed that Lakish had filed as a registered agent for the White Eagle on May 11, 2017.
When McCloskey notified Lakish of charges pending in the case per a complaint filed with the Saguache Sheriff’s Office by O’Halloran and Kramer, he was wearing a bodycam. The recording clearly showed Lakish telling McCloskey that “Nobody” gave him permission to be on the LLC, but added that O’Halloran and Kramer gave him the impression they wanted him to be a member. “I have no formal permission to do anything with the LLC,” Lakish told McCloskey.
Lakish said he asked Kramer if he had been in touch with Hendry, and Kramer said the last he had heard, Hendry was ill. “Kramer wouldn’t give me a signed agreement; but nobody really owns the building,” Lakish continued. “I’m a member of an LLC and I assumed he conveyed membership to the LLC,” referring to a handshake engaged in during a conversation held at The Mercantile in Crestone, where Kramer works.
As Zerbi later noted, no one ever testified that they witnessed the handshake. Both Kramer and O’Halloran later testified that despite several requests over the years by Lakish, they had denied him membership in the LLC.
Lakish emphasized to the jury repeatedly that he believed a handshake could seal a deal and constituted an actual contract. However a witness for the defendant, County Attorney Ben Gibbons — described by Zerbi as an “expert witness” — testified differently during redirect. Gibbons said that “a handshake would not transfer property,” because the person engaging in the handshake “would have to have authority to transfer property.”
Gibbons also told Zerbi that a handshake “was maybe a legal contract,” as understood by a layperson, but added that such a contract would have to be in writing. At least two of the three members of the LLC would need to have agreed to transfer the property to Lakish under the LLC’s terms of agreement, and O’Halloran and Kramer both testified they had never agreed to make such a transfer.
County Treasurer Connie Trujillo identified as authentic a document showing that what Lakish had described as an attempt by reporter Benns to portray him in a guilty light — that “Lakish was included in a trust that named him part owner” — was actually part of the language used in the very document Lakish signed in Trujillo’s office to become the lienholder for the property.
Trujillo told Zerbi that Lakish reneged on his agreement with her office after making only one payment and would not have acquired an interest in the property for several more years, even had payments been made. All three Saguache commissioners testified about the plans Lakish presented to them for the property but could not confirm he had represented himself as an agent for the White Eagle.
However Land Use Director Wendi Maez, then acting as county co-administrator, did confirm he had represented himself as a registered agent at the 2017 commissioner meetings. JoAnn Slivka, district manager for the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District, also testified Lakish had referred to himself as a registered agent for the White Eagle and had presented Slivka with a certificate to that effect. This when requesting water be turned on under his name at the lodge.
Lakish also admitted during testimony that he did not read the fine print on the Secretary of State’s website notifying him to look and make sure the owners of the LLC had relinquished their interests. O’Halloran explained that while the LLC had been late paying its fees, the grace period for payment had not yet expired and they were still registered owners.
The trial was frequently punctuated with Zerbi’s objections and the judge’s summoning of Lakish for consultation at the bench. Lakish contradicted himself several times on the nature of his relationship with O’Halloran, his intentions regarding the LLC and other issues.
In testimony on his own behalf, Lakish told the jury of his dreams for the White Eagle, his experience as a film director, described hobnobbing sessions with big names in Hollywood, the good his vision for the lodge would have done for the community and his longstanding connection to the White Eagle, where he once lived as a boy. In closing arguments, he denied, as he had throughout the trial, that he ever “knowingly” forged documents or represented himself as anyone but William Alder Lakish. He also re-emphasized his “handshake” permission to become an agent for White Eagle LLC.
Assistant DA Zerbi repeated there were no witnesses to the handshake and reminded the jury that on several occasions, from 2011 on, Lakish was told he could not become a member of the LLC. In signing the LLC, Zerbi pointed out, Lakish acknowledged that he had read the fine print that would have told him the LLC had not been abandoned. She observed that dealing with Hollywood types would have educated Lakish on how to manage an LLC and would not have given him the impression business was done on just a handshake. She stated that Lakish made false statements to others regarding the LLC “to his own benefit” and “knowingly claimed legal authority he didn’t have.”
The jury deliberated for about three hours before returning with a verdict and the announcement they were deadlocked on the criminal impersonation charge.