Film producer Christopher Eberts, who pleaded guilty in March to wire fraud and money laundering charges, has been sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
The producer behind films such as "Lord of War" and "The Punisher" was indicted in 2013 by a grand jury in Illinois on seven counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering.
The case, brought by the U.S. attorney's office in Peoria, Ill., centered on a movie that Eberts claimed to be making and solicited money for, but never filmed.
Federal Judge Joe Billy McDade of the Central District of Illinois sentenced Eberts to 46 months in prison and three years’ probation, according to an official with the Peoria courthouse, where the hearing was held Wednesday. Sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of between 37 and 46 months.
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.
Elliott, who spoke at Wednesday's hearing, said it was a "bittersweet moment."
"The fact that he is going to prison for what he’s done doesn’t change the fact of what's been taken from my family," said Elliott, who successfully sued the 49-year-old producer in civil court three years ago. "Hopefully, we can put this all behind us."
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. He changed his plea to guilty about a month before he was scheduled to go on trial in April.
The producer, who isn't credited with any films after 2009, could not be reached for comment. According to the Peoria court official, his prison term begins immediately.
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 movie, the Cage-starring "Lord of War," took in $73 million in 2005.
But several films Eberts produced fared poorly at the box office, and others never received a theatrical release, including a trio of movies 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."
Elliott won his civil case against Eberts in 2012, with a judge ruling that the retired firefighter was entitled to nearly $1.2 million in damages from the producer. Eberts settled that matter in March, when he paid back Elliott $400,000, according to a court filing, which also said that the producer made restitution with "the help of his family."
On Wednesday, Judge McDade also ordered that Eberts make restitution to Elliott in the amount of $178,500.
Between the payout from the civil case and the restitution ordered Wednesday, Elliott said he would be made nearly whole.
Elliott said that Eberts spoke at the sentencing hearing and tearfully apologized for his actions.
"I felt sorry for him," Elliott said. "He apologized to me, he apologized to his family and to the court. And he asked for leniency."
Despite Elliott's entanglement with Eberts, the former firefighter continued to pursue the goal of making a movie based on his book. Ultimately, the project found a home with former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's faith-based film company, EchoLight Studios. The movie, called "Hoovey," premiered in January.
Follow @DanielNMiller for film business news