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Banker in faked suicide case sends jailhouse letters

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Updated: 2/26 1:56 pm
ATLANTA, Ga. (AJC) -- A South Georgia bank director who staged his death and is accused of embezzlement has sent remorseful letters to some investors he allegedly bilked.

In the letters, Aubrey Lee Price says he does not expect forgiveness, but wants to offer former investors his “deepest and sincere apologies for the financial, emotional, and painful losses you have experienced as a result of my mismanagement of your investments.”

It’s yet another twist in a tale that’s already featured lost millions, faked suicide and the New Year’s Eve capture of a most-wanted fugitive whose wife had him declared dead.

Price sent the handwritten letters from the Bulloch County jail in Statesboro, where he is being held. Price has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges, but the contents of the letters could be used in an eventual trial.

“I fully accept my penalties and punishment and now live only to work for anything I can get returned for the benefit of clients,” the letter said, according to an investor who read a copy to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. “…Hopefully, you will learn of my commitment to do whatever I can all the days of my life to make full restitution of your financial losses.”

Price wrote that much of what has been reported about him is “completely inaccurate and very unfair.”

Those reports started with his June 2012 disappearance and the failure of a bank he had tried to save. Authorities say he staged his death in the Gulf of Mexico and may have been involved in growing pot in Florida before being captured near Brunswick on New Year’s Eve. He left his wife and four children behind when he vanished.

“There is much more to say concerning my story than what is and has been reported,” Price wrote.

Barry Cooper, an investor from Griffin who received the letter, said he was surprised to see it. But he learned that several other investors received similar missives.

“I was hoping for more of a personal kind of thing,” Cooper said.

While convicted felons may write notes of apology to victims, it is less common for people who have been accused but have not yet made a plea deal or gone to trial. Price faces one charge of bank fraud in Savannah, and has been indicted for wire fraud in New York.

The notes could indicate Price will cooperate with prosecutors in his criminal case, in hopes of a more lenient plea deal.

“If you were thinking of going to trial, why would you write a letter like that?” said noted Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel.

In addition to the letters, Price is cooperating with attorneys who hope to use him as a witness in two civil lawsuits that could collect as much as $14 million for 150 investors he allegedly defrauded.

For more than an hour last Thursday, Price talked to Guy Giberson, an attorney for the court-appointed receiver of Price’s defunct companies. The receiver’s job is to return as much money as possible to investors, who lost an estimated $25 million. Price’s attorney was present for the meeting.

Giberson said he was limited to six questions that could help the receiver’s civil cases. Those include a lawsuit against three former insiders of Montgomery Bank & Trust, which failed three weeks after Price went on the lam.

Giberson said they did not discuss how Price spent the time he was missing, and his letters also did not mention it. But Giberson said Price was cooperative and answered questions “in a way that seemed completely truthful.”

“My sense from him is that he’d love to talk, to get a lot of stuff off his mind,” Giberson said.

Price’s lead attorney, Joshua Lowther, declined comment, as did a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Savannah.

Price, a former preacher, had a Bible in his pocket when he met with Giberson. Price looked thin, and Giberson said Price’s hair was shorter than the shoulder-length locks in his widely-circulated mugshot.

Price had a reputation as a charming, affable man, Giberson said, but he saw none of that.

“He’s very serious. He’s not in a joking mood,” Giberson said. “He’s definitely still a man of faith. I think he’s taking this quite personally. It’s either true that he does care more about the victims than himself, or he’s good at pretending.”

Mary Jo Peters, a St. Simons Island resident who lost her life savings after she invested with Price, said he might “look like the old Lee and talk like the old Lee,” but she still isn’t sure he can be trusted.

“He knew the Bible inside and out, but so does the devil,” she said.

Giberson said Price’s information has already helped. The receiver plans to amend her complaint against the directors and officers of Montgomery Bank to include additional allegations as a result of the conversation, Giberson said.

The receiver’s case may be key to any reimbursement to Price’s alleged victims, who include investors in both the failed bank and a financial firm he ran.

The receiver has so far collected $2.75 million, $1.8 million of it from three insurance companies after Price was declared dead. But those companies have gone to court to get their money back, and several experts say they are likely to prevail.

After spending for court fees and other expenses, the receiver has $1.67 million left, and a win by the insurance companies could wipe out the funds meant for investors.

Giberson said under Georgia law, it would be unfair to force the receiver to return the money because of the court’s error in declaring Price dead.

Harold Skipper, an emeritus professor of risk management and insurance at Georgia State University, said the law is “exceptionally thin.” But Skipper’s “barometer of fairness” says the insurance companies should prevail.

“They paid through a mistake, and the others lost through fraud,” Skipper said. “None of it’s fair at the end of the day."

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