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.