Mass. man gets 5 years in $1.3M Ocean Spray theft

June 22, 2011 - 3:59 PM

BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts man who stole more than $1 million from Ocean Spray Cranberries, then faked his own disappearance in California, was sentenced to five years in prison Wednesday after a company representative called him "callous" and "evil" for stealing from struggling cranberry growers.

James Repetto, 54, of Sandwich, set off a two-day Coast Guard search after a friend told lifeguards in San Diego that he did not return from a 2-mile swim. At the time, Repetto, a former Ocean Spray plant manager, was awaiting sentencing on fraud charges for a scheme that cost the Lakeville-based company $1.3 million. Repetto was arrested five days later in Yuma, Ariz.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Balthazard told U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro that Repetto deserved a five-year sentence — at the high end of federal sentencing guidelines — because his scheme to defraud Ocean Spray went on for eight years.

Prosecutors said Repetto began a scheme in 1999 along with a co-defendant, Stanley Wheeler, of Barnstable. They said Wheeler and Repetto submitted invoices to Ocean Spray on behalf of Wheeler's packaging company for services the company never performed. Wheeler and Repetto then split the money.

Both men pleaded guilty to fraud charges. Repetto also pleaded guilty to a witness tampering charge for writing a five-page letter to Wheeler in which he details a false story they could use to cover up the crime, prosecutors said. Balthazard said Repetto's decision to pretend to be lost at sea prompted the Coast Guard to search for him for about 20 hours during a bad storm. The search cost taxpayers approximately $250,000, he said.

Michael Stamatakos, a vice president at Ocean Spray, said that as an agricultural cooperative, Ocean Spray is owned by over 650 cranberry growers and approximately 50 grapefruit growers, mostly multi-generational family farmers. He said Repetto's theft hurt the farmers because proceeds earned by Ocean Spray on their crops are returned to the farmers on an annual basis. Repetto knew many of the farmers personally, Stamatakos said.

"Therefore, Mr. Repetto's theft was much more personal than a standard corporate embezzlement because he took money directly from the pockets of the farmers who make up Ocean Spray," Stamatakos said.

He said that from 2000 to 2002, the cooperative was going through a tough time and many of the small family farms were facing the prospect of bankruptcy or foreclosure.

"It is unfathomable to me that Mr. Repetto could be so callous and so evil to be stealing from these farmers at such a difficult time," Stamatakos said. He said Repetto was fired after an internal audit revealed the theft.

Repetto tearfully apologized to his family, friends and Ocean Spray employees, calling his actions "inexcusable."

His attorney, Andrew Good, asked the judge to consider a sentence of three or four years, saying that Repetto hopes to pay back all of the money he stole. Good said Repetto was suicidal when he faked his own disappearance and that he called the Coast Guard to end the search.

Tauro agreed with prosecutors' recommendation of a 5-year prison term. He also ordered Repetto to pay $1.3 million in restitution.

Wheeler's sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 30.