'Lord of War' producer Christopher Eberts pleads guilty in fraud and money laundering case

Film producer, a son-in-law of construction magnate Ronald Tutor, pleads guilty in fraud case

Christopher Eberts, the independent producer behind films such as "Lucky Number Slevin" and "Lord of War," has pleaded guilty to all 10 counts of a fraud and money laundering case related to a movie he claimed to be making.

Eberts, 49, was indicted in June 2013 by the U.S. attorney's office in Peoria, Ill., on seven counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering.

According to the indictment, in 2009, Eberts convinced retired firefighter Jeff Elliott of Normal, Ill., to give him several hundred thousand dollars for a film project. The movie was to be based on a book by Elliott, "Rebounding From Death's Door," which documented his son's triumph over a life-threatening brain tumor.

But Eberts, the son-in-law of construction magnate Ronald Tutor, never made the movie and Elliott was unable to retrieve his investment, which ultimately totaled more than $500,000.

The U.S. attorney's office alleged in the indictment that Eberts "devised and participated in a scheme and artifice to defraud [Elliott] and to obtain money and property by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises." 

Eberts originally pleaded not guilty to the charges.

According to a court filing, Eberts changed his plea to guilty on March 16. He had been scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court in Peoria in mid-April. Eberts, who isn't credited with producing any films after 2009, will be sentenced July 15.

The prosecutors' money laundering allegations against Eberts centered on three monetary transfers totaling $125,030. According to the indictment, the funds -- "criminally derived property" -- were sent to a relative of Eberts, his bankruptcy attorney and an art gallery.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade issued a preliminary order of forfeiture for property of Eberts' that he derived from proceeds traceable to his offenses. Eberts has been ordered to forfeit artwork purchased for a total of about $43,000 and a wristwatch purchased for about $9,000.

Eberts and his attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Elliott declined to comment, but told The Times earlier this year that he'd been troubled by recent public displays of Eberts' wealth.

"I found pictures of him on Facebook — in Greece, Spain, St. Barths — and that's where you really get upset," Elliott said in January. "He's out vacationing all over the world."

Elliott filed a civil lawsuit against Eberts in 2011 that alleged fraud and breach of contract. In that case, Judge Michael Mihm of U.S. District Court in Peoria ruled in 2012 that Elliott should be awarded $651,753 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

As part of his guilty plea in the criminal matter, Eberts has paid back Elliott $400,000, according to a March 24 court filing, which also said that the producer made restitution with "the help of his family." 

Eberts, who is the nephew of the late "Gandhi" producer Jake Eberts, made a name as a producer in the 2000s with a handful of commercial films featuring stars such as Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. His top-grossing picture, the Cage-starring "Lord of War," took in $73 million in 2005.

Eberts also married a daughter of Tutor, whose construction firm Tutor Perini is one of the companies that has been tapped to build the California high-speed rail line.

But several films Eberts produced fared poorly at the box office, and others never received a theatrical release, including a trio of movies that were made in 2009. Eberts filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February 2009, listing liabilities of more than $1 million.

According to the indictment, Eberts did not tell Elliott that he had filed for bankruptcy, which occurred "just one month prior to their agreement to make the movie."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE:

2:24 p.m.: The post was updated to reflect that Eberts pleaded guilty to all 10 counts.

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