SAN FRANCISCO — At sentencing Wednesday, it was almost as if the judge apologized for the inconvenience when he sent Tony Daniloo to federal prison for 7½ years.
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup talked eloquently and sympathetically about Daniloo's "great mistake."
Sorry, but a mistake is an accounting error.
Stealing $7 million blatantly and boldly from unsophisticated and unsuspecting victims, living like a king off his thievery and destroying the lives of others in the process — as Daniloo admits he did — went beyond the borders of bad judgment. It was purely criminal, devious and intentional — make no mistake about it.
The 108-month federal prison sentence, less 18 months for time served while a state case proceeded in Alameda County, seems light when you consider the number of people Daniloo targeted to deceive, hurt and bilk.
One victim committed suicide.
Others lost everything.
The time Daniloo received Wednesday amounts to less than a year in prison for every $1 million he stole.
But the most amazing thing about this day was the tone of the judge — a man whom reporters who cover the federal courts say is generally very hard-nosed.
The building alone is an ominous place. Federal courthouses exude power and protocol and are seldom warm and fuzzy places. I mean, they even assign room numbers to the restrooms. How much more cold and calculated can they get?
Yet, instead of the dressing down I (and others) expected Alsup to give a confessed con artist on behalf of the law and the victims, he gave Daniloo a pep talk.
Cornered with overwhelming evidence, Daniloo had pleaded guilty to 122 counts in a deal cut by attorney Deborah Levine and federal prosecutor Michael Wang. Sentencing laws no doubt limited Alsup's options to two: Approve it or deny it. He approved it.
Still, he treated Daniloo with greater respect than he accorded either of the attorneys, chastising them for legal errors in concocting their plea deal and the accompanying documents.
He graciously thanked Daniloo's parents for attending, sympathizing with the pain they must feel seeing their son in beige prison issue.
While acknowledging Daniloo's crimes, Alsup predicted "good chapters" in Daniloo's future, calling him a man of "great potential" and a "good person who made a great mistake."
What about the chapters in the lives of those good people Daniloo ripped off — victims who endured financial ruin and humiliation? He'll get out of prison about the same time they're getting back on their feet and cleaning up their credit reports.
Because the proceedings were in San Francisco and midweek, and because the sentencing date was changed repeatedly, only a few victims attended. And those who did declined to address the court — to vent, to rail at Daniloo and to get in one parting shot while demanding a tougher sentence.
Thus the verbal lynching party that often comes before a sentence is pronounced never materialized. To the contrary, Alsup granted the defense's wish by recommending that the Bureau of Prisons send Daniloo to the minimum-security federal facility in Lompoc, rather than the prison in Atwater.
Nobody expected him to go to notorious Pelican Bay or communicate with Scott Peterson via Morse code at San Quentin — state prisons that house the worst of the worst.
Lompoc, by comparison, is a country club.
Daniloo deserves something in between.
His wimpy apology – "I'm sorry for everybody who was caught up in what I've done" — will carry about as much weight with his victims as his promise to "work hard to repay whatever I can" after his release in 2014.
Equally pathetic is that authorities were onto his shenanigans in 2002, but didn't arrest him until after The Bee exposed him in December 2004. He stole $4.5 million in 2004 alone.
A mistake? No. It was a crime, no matter how they spin it.