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Petro America chief seeks new trial in fraud case

Bill Draper, Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A former businessman convicted of bilking mostly poor investors out of millions of dollars is asking for a new trial, arguing that one of the jurors was a tailor who altered several of his suits that prosecutors said he purchased with investor funds.

Petro America Corp. founder Isreal Owen Hawkins was convicted earlier this month of conspiracy, securities fraud, money laundering and other charges related to his purported oil and mining operation, which he claimed was worth $284 billion. Four other top leaders of the Missouri-based company also were convicted for their roles in the $10.2 million scheme.

Prosecutors allege they illegally sold unregistered stock to people who weren't eligible to invest in risky start-ups, many of them poor and elderly churchgoers who were persuaded by their pastors to buy stock in a company many hailed as a blessing. Thousands of people paid as little as $100 for 100,000 shares of Petro stock with promises that it was on the verge of going public and would be worth at least $2 per share when it did.

Others were "gifted" millions of shares after Missouri issued a cease and desist order against selling the stock. Some of the people who received the free shares then sold them to other investors.

Hawkins, 57, of Kansas City, Kan., filed a motion in federal court in Kansas City last week asking for a new trial on the basis of juror misconduct. Hawkins wrote that one of the jurors worked at Halls Department Store, where he purchased several suits, but didn't disclose during jury selection that she knew Hawkins and had altered his suits.

Hawkins, who prosecutors said received millions of dollars in investor funds and spent lavishly on vehicles, a home and expensive clothing, ditched his public defender in April, two days before the start of jury selection in what turned out to be a 17-day trial involving five defendants.

He represented himself during the trial and took part in jury selection, but he argues that he didn't realize until after he was convicted on May 15 that one of the jurors had altered his suits at Halls, an upscale Kansas City store where prosecutors said he purchased several suits with cash.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City declined to comment on the motion Tuesday. The juror named in Hawkins' motion didn't immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Hawkins still doesn't have an attorney.