A former standout football player at L.C. Bird High School and the University of Virginia was sentenced Friday to 40 years in prison in a $10 million fraud that cost 63 investors $9 million — some of them their life savings.
Merrill Robertson Jr., 39, of Chesterfield County was convicted by a jury in October of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud and money laundering that victimized family, friends, coaches, teammates, churchgoers and even his Sunday school teacher.
U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. imposed a term above the roughly 20 to 24 years called for under federal sentencing guidelines, citing the egregiousness of the crimes that he said left victims serving life sentences.
Robertson and co-conspirator Sherman Carl Vaughn, 48, started Cavalier Union Investments LLC and Black Bull Wealth Management LLC. From 2008 to 2016, they solicited victims to invest in private funds and other investments.
Checks from investors were deposited into business accounts, and the two perpetrators took commissions off the top. Vaughn testified that they targeted retirement savings because that was where the money was.
Robertson also talked some investors into taking out shady loans in which much of the proceeds went to him and other conspirators, leaving some victims without retirement savings and also in debt with wrecked credit ratings.
He used relationships and contacts made through playing football at Bird, Fork Union Military Academy, UVA and briefly in the National Football League to identify potential investors. Vaughn, who pleaded guilty and testified against Robertson, was sentenced to 12 years.
Last year, a federal appeals court overturned Robertson’s convictions in his first trial, ruling that Gibney had not questioned jurors closely enough on whether they had read a newspaper account of the trial.
Robertson was retried in October and convicted again of the same crimes. On Friday, he received the same sentence imposed by Gibney in 2018.
A number of victims were in the courtroom Friday and heard something they had not heard before: an apology.
“I want to say that I am truly, truly, truly, truly sorry,” said Robertson, looking back toward the victims from the podium in front of the judge. Given a chance to speak before he was sentenced, he said he made some bad mistakes.
Robertson said, “These people loved me, they cared about me and they trusted me, and I’m sorry.”
Gibney, however, was not dissuaded by Robertson or his lawyers from imposing the same sentence.
“This is not a mistake,” the judge said. “A mistake doesn’t last for eight or 10 years. A mistake doesn’t leave 63 people broke, or close to broke.”
Gibney said he found it particularly troublesome that Robertson used religion to fleece people.
“He prayed with people before he took their money,” he said. “That’s a way of getting somebody’s confidence … that goes beyond the pale.”
Prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Robertson “collected money from, among others, his brother-in-law, his childhood Sunday School teacher, his high school basketball coach, and the man who recruited him to play linebacker at the University of Virginia. The Court also heard numerous witnesses testify that the defendant preyed on people’s religious faith, often quoting scriptures or praying with investors to lead them to believe that their money was in honest hands. Fraud cases are always ultimately about lying to and stealing from others. But, the defendant’s willingness to harm those that have loved, supported, and mentored him is especially abhorrent.”
One victim had to sell his home, and others declared bankruptcy. An elderly victim who died following the first trial could not afford in-home care or assisted living because of her losses. The widow of another victim wrote that the sense of shame and financial strain contributed to her husband’s suicide, prosecutors wrote.
Katherine Lee Martin, an assistant U.S. attorney, suggested to Gibney on Friday that a sentence longer than the guidelines remained appropriate in the case.
One of several victims who addressed the court Friday was told shortly before her daughter’s wedding that the wedding was off because a check written by Robertson to pay the country club bounced. The wedding went on but only because a friend lent her $12,500.
Another victim, Danny Wilmer, the former UVA football coach who recruited Robertson and who lost nearly $500,000, has suffered a stroke since Robertson was sentenced two years ago.
“I’ve lost about everything, your honor,” Wilmer said Friday. “I worked hard for my money all my life.”
David Hulser, a special agent with the FBI, testified that authorities looked for the invested money but said, “Nothing’s left. … Everything was spent.”
Robertson and Vaughn spent the money on mortgages for luxury homes, vacations, spas, a private suite at UVA football games, shopping, jewelry, charitable donations, private school tuition and other ways not authorized by the investors.
Robertson had been employed and trained as a financial adviser by the wealth management firm Merrill Lynch. Evidence showed he left that company to launch his career in fraud.
In court papers, his lawyers wrote that Robertson, who had no prior criminal record, “is a kind, generous, hard-working person, a dutiful son, a loving husband, and a devoted father.”
“The offenses for which he was charged and convicted are aberrations in what has otherwise been an honorable, law-abiding life,” they argued.
One man who lost $5,500 investing with Robertson testified on his behalf Friday, describing him as “a courteous, polite young man.”
Michael Hu Young, one of his lawyers, asked Gibney on Friday to impose a prison term within the guideline range.
Before adjourning court, Gibney said the case was a tragedy all the way around, not just for the victims but for Robertson, who had a promising life that is now ruined.
“It just makes me terribly sad,” he said.
After Friday’s hearing, Wilmer, asked if he believed Robertson was sorry, said, “He’s fooled me so many times I don’t know.”