published Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Hargett not guilty in check scheme

An Atlanta man was found not guilty Wednesday of charges that he recruited homeless men to cash counterfeit checks in Georgia and Tennessee.

The federal jury in Chattanooga returned the verdict after about 90 minutes in the retrial of Herschel Hargett on three counts of bank fraud and one count of conspiracy to cash counterfeit checks.

At Hargett's first trial, in June, the jury deadlocked and U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice declared a mistrial.

"It's been an agonizing period for Mr. Hargett," said his attorney, Lee Ortwein. "He's really relieved that he can put this behind him and move on with the rest of his life."

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Brooks closed his case Wednesday, the second day of the trial, by reminding the jury of key details that Hargett wrote in a statement to U.S. Secret Service agents. In the statement, Hargett admitted he was involved in the scheme after the homeless men were arrested at the GreenBank in Athens, Tenn., for trying to cash counterfeit payroll checks in amounts as high as $2,800.

Ortwein reminded the jury his client had testified that he cooperated with agents because they told him he wasn't the "big fish" and he wanted to help as much as he could with the investigation.

Hargett testified that he thought he was helping men named Josh and Marco find "cheap labor" at Atlanta homeless shelters in exchange for $200 to buy a phone and a $200 cash payment.

According to the federal indictment, some of the homeless men said they were recruited by a man referred to as Dread and taken to a hotel, where they had to hand over their identification and were given drugs, food and alcohol. The next day, they were driven to Georgia and Tennessee banks to cash the checks, they said.

At least four men identified Hargett as Dread in a photo lineup.

Hargett testified that Josh and Marco referred to him as Dread because of his dreadlock hairstyle and to pin a face and name to the scheme they perpetrated before disappearing.

"I didn't have anything to hide and I didn't know they were trying to flip this around and make me look like a criminal," Hargett testified.

Agents have not found Josh or Marco.

Brooks challenged jurors to use common sense, saying there was no way Hargett didn't know what was going on and his detailed statement to agents proved that.

But Hargett testified that he only learned of the scheme when agents explained it to him while they talked of his involvement with Josh and Marcos. He said he simply wrote the statement with conclusions he made while talking with agents in an effort to aid the investigation.

"They would think I am guilty but luckily, in this judicial system, I get my chance to explain," Hargett said of his written statement.

As he did in the June trial, Ortwein attacked the credibility of three homeless men who testified against Hargett, citing their extensive criminal histories and crack-cocaine addictions.

One witness, Eric Williams, was arrested on charge of solicitation of male prostitution in Atlanta while waiting to testify Tuesday.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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