On The Trail Of A California Grifter Part 2: Humboldt County Victim’s Decade-long Saga

Have you seen this man? Jeffrey Lang photo courtesy R.V. Scheide

Have you seen this man? Jeffrey Lang photo courtesy R.V. Scheide

In the first installment of this series, I introduced readers to Jeffrey Lang, a convicted felony embezzler who’s currently sitting in jail without bail facing fraud and forgery charges in Sacramento County. I also introduced, anonymously, the two women who have brought the charges against Lang. They belong to a group of six women, all of whom allege they entered an intimate relationship with Lang, only to be swindled to the collective tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

The subject of this installment requires no anonymity. Bruce McFarland knows firsthand the kind of financial damage Lang can do. In 2007, Lang and a co-worker reached into the financial heart of McFarland’s Humboldt County advertising agency and proceeded to bleed it to death. By the time McFarland caught on to them, it was too late.

In 2012, Lang pleaded guilty to embezzling $160,000 from McFarland’s now-defunct advertising agency and was sentenced to 180 days in jail and five years probation. Lang was later ordered to pay McFarland $160,000 in restitution. Lang reportedly served just 50 days behind bars, and according to McFarland, has only paid slightly more than $1,000 in restitution to date.

McFarland’s not happy about Lang’s punishment or the paltry restitution so far, but that’s not the main reason he called me after the first installment of this series was published last week.

He was worried that readers might think that Lang is “just some gigolo who goes on dating sites and scams women. He’s not just schmoozing money. He’s way smarter than that.”

McFarland spent two decades growing his Humboldt County advertising agency, which designed and placed advertisements in local media for its clients. He hired Lang as a sales rep in 2001. Everything was humming along smoothly until March, 2007, when McFarland’s bank called and informed him the company credit card was maxed out at $70,000 and the payment was past due.

That was news to McFarland, since he was the only person authorized to use the card and he always made sure to zero out the balance every month. His credit card company’s policy was to not send a bill when the balance was zeroed out, and he’d received no bills at the office indicating otherwise.The next day, he confronted his office manager, Marcie Wright, with the discrepancy. When her jaw dropped, McFarland sensed she was guilty and was ready to go to the police when Lang stepped in with a seemingly preposterous offer.

Lang offered to buy the company from McFarland for the amount of the outstanding credit debt, which totaled $160,000, in exchange for McFarland not going to the police.

From that moment on, McFarland began to suspect Lang and Wright were in cahoots, and he turned out to be right. He discovered that in addition to the credit card debt, Lang and Wright had been forging his name on company checks. In Lang’s case, it turned out to be 120 checks totaling $135,000. Wright, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor embezzlement charges in 2012, forged 32 checks totaling $23,000.

“If you knew you’d been caught running up $160,000 in credit card debt, wouldn’t you stop forging checks?” asked McFarland, who says he’s the kind of guy who always returns change to the cashier when the mistake is in his favor, even if the cashier tries to refuse it.

“But No! They continued forging checks at a higher pace!”

As McFarland continued investigating the “spider-web of electronic payments” coursing through his company’s accounts, he began to encounter resistance from the bank and law enforcement. The bank seemed more interested in how it was going to get paid, not Lang’s shady activities. The local district attorney’s office seemed at first reluctant to prosecute a case with such complex financial shenanigans.

Estimating that Lang and Wright may have grifted him for up to a half-million dollars, which he stood little chance of recovering, McFarland accepted Lang’s dubious offer to buy his company for $160,000, the amount of the credit card debt. In October, 2007 McFarland stepped away from the company and Lang took control.

The idea was that Lang and Wright would continue the business under a new name and pay McFarland the $160,000 within six months. But McFarland says the money Lang claimed to be raising from family members never materialized, and by December, McFarland’s former advertising agency was evicted from the building that had housed it for 25 years.

“I thought if he can come up with money—the credit card debt was more than the value of our house,” said McFarland, now 63. Back then, his son was just getting ready to go to college and he and his wife were just beginning to contemplate retirement. The possibility they might lose it all was very real.

“My accountant was stunned because he realized he’d been lied to,” McFarland said. “He’d been shown a false set of books somehow. Once it all hit the fan, it fell apart like a house of cards.”

The ad agency collapsed and after six months went by without payment from Lang, McFarland filed charges against Lang and Wright with the Humboldt County District Attorney’s office in May, 2008.

In July, Eureka Police Department detective Ron Prose was assigned the case. McFarland claims Prose was dubious at first, because the story was so incredible, but is now a “true believer” when it comes to Lang’s criminality. Having spoken to Prose about the case several times, including last week, I can attest to that fact.

McFarland, Prose and the district attorney put together a solid case against Lang and Wright, the forged checks offering particularly devastating evidence, and the co-conspirators were looking at potential prison sentences.

But behind the scenes, a sea change was taking place in California’s criminal justice system. The state Legislature passed AB 109 prison realignment in 2011 in order to decrease the state’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons. Under the new rules, Lang and Wright were classified as non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders eligible for shorter sentences in the county jail instead of longer sentences in the state prison.

“When I first started working with the DA’s office in 2008, anything over $100,000 meant they were going to prison,” McFarland said. Counting the forged checks, credit card fraud and other illegal electronic transactions, the total amount embezzled from the company was $380,000 according to Prose; McFarland thinks it was significantly more than that, because the statute of limitations for such financial crimes only goes back one year.

At any rate, during the plea-bargaining process, the charges against Lang and Wright were whittled down to mainly just the check forgeries in exchange for guilty pleas. McFarland remains upset that Wright was allowed to plea to lesser misdemeanor charges and not the same felony charges as Lang, since she had provided him with access to the company’s accounts.

“Without her, he wouldn’t have gotten one penny,” McFarland said.

Lang pleaded guilty to embezzlement and after friends and family members offered testimony to his uprightness and trustworthiness, he was sentenced to 180 days in the county jail in April, 2012, nearly four years after McFarland first filed charges.

According to Prose, Lang served just 50 days behind bars before being placed in the work-release program.

“50 days in jail for half-a- million dollars is a good deal!” McFarland said. “That’s not a punishment. It’s not a discouragement or deterrent. As long as he never amounts to anything, he’s got nothing to lose. The only thing they have to lose that you can take away is their freedom.”

In April, 2013, Lang was ordered to pay McFarland $160,000 in restitution—the amount of the 120 forged company checks plus several other forgeries committed as the company was going down in financial flames in 2007.

Not long after that court order was issued, I encountered Lang in Sacramento, where he approached me to edit a magazine project, as mentioned in the first installment of this series.

McFarland learned about the project through the grapevine and suffered mixed emotions. On the one hand, he hadn’t been able to rebuild his business, which Lang helped destroy, so why should Lang even be allowed to own and operate a magazine? On the other hand, if the magazine turned out to be successful, Lang might actually pay him back.

The magazine wasn’t successful and McFarland’s still waiting to be paid back. The honest-to-a-fault business owner paid down his former company’s $160,000 credit card debt himself, receiving only a limited discount from the bank. He has no regrets about prosecuting Lang, even if he’s not happy with the results.

“This person is not a high school drop-out from a broken home. He has work experience, he’s a college graduate. He has advantages many people don’t, yet he made a conscious decision to hurt people,” McFarland said.

I could almost hear him shaking his head over the telephone.

“You’ve got to make the consequences serious or he’ll walk.”

Being in the promotions business most of his adult career, McFarland says he toyed with the idea of mounting a political campaign, “Sensible Sentences,” to protest the change wrought by AB 109, Prop 47 and other criminal justice reforms in California. His family convinced him to drop the idea.

“Court cases drag on for years, I caught them at this in 2007,” he said. “I’m just seeing pennies on the dollar.”

He’s spent the better part of a decade watching Jeffrey Lang escape the consequences of what most people, if not the state’s criminal justice system, would consider a serious crime.

He has two pieces of advice for anyone seeking to hold Lang legally accountable for his actions. First, if you believe you’ve been grifted by Lang and are contemplating filing a civil suit in small claims court, do so immediately, while Lang remains incarcerated at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Sacramento County awaiting trial and he can easily be served a legal summons.

Second, those pursuing criminal charges against Lang should immediately file a “victim’s right

of notification” with their respective district attorneys. According to the state Department of Justice:

“[A] victim has the right to reasonable notice of all public proceedings, including delinquency proceedings, upon request, at which the defendant and the prosecutor are entitled to be present and of all parole or other post-conviction release proceedings, and to be present at all such proceedings.”

Such proceedings include Lang’s next hearing, which I’ll be attending at Sacramento County Superior Court on Mon., Feb. 6. It may be in progress as you’re reading this.

In the next installment, I’ll write about the hearing and meeting Jeff Lang’s latest alleged victims in person.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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21 Responses

  1. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I’m very much a believer in the presumption of innocence: that one is innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.

    Sadly, it often doesn’t work out that way. Too often, justice is more a commodity than a right.

    But, it goes the other way, too. This a**hole has skated around the criminal justice system for too long, and he’s hurt too many people. Here’s hoping that he gets slam-dunked into prison for a long time.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I saw this guy in the dock today, and believe me, if I hadn’t written these stories, he might have easily skated free.

  2. Beverly Stafford says:

    Tar and feathers, anyone?  Since our justice system is apparently inadequate to deal with criminals like this joker, I could easily understand if the victims went postal on this guy.  No jury would convict.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      I’m thinking of something along the lines the scene in Inglourious Basterds, where Brad Pitt decides that he can’t abide the NAZI played by Cristoph Waltz go on to live a life of luxury on Nantucket Island, so he….but we’re a civilized people, so maybe something more along the lines of a forehead tattoo that says: GRIFTER.

    • anon says:

      That was my first thought, as I used to be a fairly violent person –  a Louisville Slugger would cure him of attempting this type of thing in the future.  But then I would be the one sitting behind bars.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      Fortunately, know one has gone to that extreme yet.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Nothing new.  If you commit “white collar crimes” (some might call “white people crimes”), the criminal justice system goes easy on you.  I’d rather get mugged and lose my wallet than have an employee gut my business from the inside, but you can bet that the mugger is going to get the stiffer sentence.

    There’s a prevailing attitude in America: If you allow yourself to get chumped, it’s really your fault.  That attitude influences how we treat con men, scam artists, embezzlers, and crooked CEOs and CFOs when they get caught breaking bad. The really bad guys (Bernie Madolf, Ivan Boesky, Jeffrey Skilling, etc.) get their own “Club Fed” prisons. You can take gourmet cooking classes or perfect your 8-ball game in your spare time.

    Alas, Lompoc Federal Penitentiary removed the tennis courts as a PR gesture, so that’s no longer my first pick.

    • R.V. Scheide Jr. says:

      I wonder how much that prevailing attitude–I don’t want to lose face in front of everyone because I got scammed by this guy–adds to GGDP–the Gross Grifted Domestic Product.

  4. Virginia says:

    One time when I was looking for an accounting job through an agency, I was asked if I was full charge including doing State & Fed taxes?

    I told the interviewer that the bookkeeper should never do the taxes, as it would be a good way not to find out the bookkeeper had  taken the owner to the cleaners.  The interviewer thought I was nuts.  But, as one can see, it can happen with or without other help.  Channel 9 had it happen to them…

    One needs to be smart about who is doing what for their business.  Always bond the person you hire to be the bookkeeper or accounting person, also.

     

  5. Anita Lynn Brady says:

    Gilchrist Properties LLC, in Los Molinos has experienced this only recently. Hundreds of thousands embezzled from them. It seems like a basic accounting practice of any business that audits and checks-and-balances are in place. So sad that these parasites find their way to companies that lack such protections.

    Lang, however, seems like a different breed. Evil to the core, charisma galore and absolutely no empathy or guilt.

  6. annonymous says:

    I am personally sickened by that smug smile on his face. I know him, too well.

  7. anon says:

    I was talking to a local business owner, and he hires two accounting firms, one to do the bookkeeping and taxes, and another to audit that one’s work.  It is a lot more expensive, but he has never had any issues with anyone skimming cash.

  8. Richard Christoph says:

    Great story, R.V., and those of us who have also been victimized by unscrupulous cons certainly hope that just desserts finally come to pass in this egregious case of justice gone awry.

    Below are just a few of the notorious local cases of the innocent being victimized by those who chose to live large by stealing from those whom trusted them. The embezzlement of over $600K from Gerlinger’s by an employee and trusted  friend years ago also comes to mind (name and data appear to have been scrubbed from the internet).

    During his last years, my trusting 90+ year-old Dad was susceptible to these types of scams and he willingly abdicated the management of his finances to me to ensure that he was not victimized by his childlike faith in mankind. Like “anon” above, I fear that had he had his life savings ripped off by a charming and fast-talking scumbag, the baseball bat might have been just a beginning…

    http://www.krcrtv.com/news/james-koenig-to-spend-42-years-eight-months-behind-bars-for-operating-ponzi-scheme/10845908

    http://www.oocities.org/three_strikes_legal/Arnold_Upbeat.html

    http://www.redding.com/story/news/crime/2017/01/05/former-tribal-officials-charged-embezzlement/96220390/

     

     

  9. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    This is an incredible series R.V. Scheide Jr.  I have been sharing this with everyone I know because I know intelligent people who have been victimized by charismatic cons like this and I know that many people imagine that this could never happen to them.

    Having money stolen from me, and it has happened twice in Redding, makes me sick to my stomach.  I feel as though someone has robbed me the hours of my life that I worked to make the money.  If I had KNOWN someone was going to take my money, I would have splurged on a few luxuries I denied myself to make sure I could pay rent and utilities.

    When the money is gone, it’s gone.  Bruce McFarland’s story is heartbreaking.

    Thank you again R.V.

     

  10. anon says:

    I totally agree with the comment above, this is a very well-written story, and includes a lot of important details and sources.  Thank you for taking the time and effort on this.  Most of the time when someone embezzles, it is a short blip on the news and then you never hear anything about it again.

    The ponzi that James Koenig ran allegedly bilked investors out of $250 million.  I wonder how much, if any, of that has been recovered for the poor victims?    http://archive.redding.com/news/42-years-8-months-in-prison-for-redding-man-convicted-of-massive-ponzi-scheme-ep-299504090-353804271.html

    There could be a lot of this going on, but with smaller amounts.  If a business, or person lost maybe less than $5000 it may not get reported.  Or, they may not want to admit it.  Makes one wonder how much of this occurs on a small scale.

     

  11. Aaron says:

    RV, thank you for keeping up on documenting this series of stories.