CINCINNATI – “Welcome back, Mr. Brown.”
That’s the greeting Judge Ethna Cooper gave Lashawn Pettus-Brown when he returned to her courtroom Thursday – almost 12 years after the tall, handsome, pro basketball player bilked the city out of $184,000 in an incident that has embarrassed city officials ever since.
In 2002, Pettus-Brown offered to renovate the crumbling, 90-year-old Empire Theater in Over-the-Rhine if the city would just give him a loan. Pettus-Brown, who played basketball in Japan, fooled city officials with a forged bank letter that showed he had a net worth of $1.6 million when he really had a net worth of 1.6 million yen – about $14,000.
He also claimed to run an entertainment company called PBI (Pettus-Brown Incorporated) .
City officials couldn't wait to write him a check and Pettus-Brown couldn't wait to spend it - on himself. He used it to promote a rap concert in Australia, travel and dine at expensive restaurants and never did any work on the theater, prosecutors said.
He was eventually convicted of fraud in Cooper's court but fled the country in 2005 and apparently hadn’t returned until last December, when he was arrested at the Los Angeles airport.
"It wasn't a matter of me fleeing, it was just a matter of I thought I was finished with everything," Pettus-Brown told Cooper Thursday.
The Misadventures of the City and Pettus-Brown might make a good movie, but no one would believe it really happened. Here are some of the highlights:
> 2003: A year after the city pays Pettus-Brown, the theater roof collapses and the theater has to be demolished.
➢ 2004: Pettus-Brown is on the lam in New York when a woman he’s dating googles him, discovers he is wanted for fraud and calls police. They set up a sting and arrest him at an Applebee’s in Long Island.
➢ 2004: Pettus-Brown is convicted in federal court, but the conviction is thrown out.
➢ 2005: Pettus-Brown goes back to jail on theft charges and is convicted in Cooper’s court. She sends him to prison for four years.
➢ 2005: Pettus-Brown serves five months in a prison boot camp and then goes free, unbeknownest to Cooper. He flees to Japan and resumes his basketball career as a 6-6 forward with the Tokyo Blue.
> 2006: The city wins a judgment of $184,172.40 against Pettus-Brown.
> 2007: Pettus-Brown sues the U.S. government for $10 million, claiming he was a victim of selective prosecution. He says he was made a scapegoat for the failed theater project. He never collects.
> 2010: Pettus-Brown starts Japan Entertainment Group , which lists him as founder and CEO. The company website claims to make movies, music and DVDs.
> 2013: Pettus-Brown returns to the U.S. and is arrested in California.
> 2014: Pettus-Brown is brought back to Cincinnati and find himself back in Cooper’s court.
Now 37, Pettus-Brown still owes Cincinnati $184,172.40 (plus interest) and that’s why he was wearing prisoner gray and white stripes in front of Cooper Thursday
Pettus Brown asked Cooper to release him on bond. “I have the money to pay. I have always had the money to pay," he told the judge.
But a prosecutor called Pettus-Brown “ a con man” and Cooper gave him a different kind of welcome-back present: an extended stay at the Justice Center.
The judge gave Pettus-Brown and his attorney seven days to prove he was working to pay back the loan. The judge set another hearing for Jan. 23.
Cooper could send Pettus-Brown back to prison for 12 years.