Daniel Hicks likely had good intentions when he tried to open a prep school five years ago in South Charleston, a federal judge said Wednesday before sentencing him to 18 months in prison for drug and false statement charges.
“I understand you were probably intending to try and help young people. Obviously, that has gone wrong,” U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston told Hicks, 43. “I don’t know if it started out as fraud. I think you really were attempting to start an academy, but it turned out a disaster.”
The judge said the sentence includes 17 months for the heroin distribution charge and a month for making a false statement to a federal agent during an investigation into the prep school. Johnston combined the cases before sentencing.
Before handing down Wednesday’s sentence, Johnston knew that Hicks had already spent 15 months behind bars at the South Central Regional Jail and that he would be given credit for that time served. Hicks was ordered to spend three years under federal supervision following his release from prison.
“I don’t know where [the Bureau of Prisons] will send him. They may send him directly to a halfway house,” Johnston said about Hicks during the sentencing hearing.
Federal advisory sentencing guidelines had recommended a sentence between 15 and 21 months. Federal prosecutors wanted Hicks, a former basketball player for New Mexico State University, to receive a sentence toward the end of that range. Hicks’ lawyer, John Carr, asked the judge to consider his client’s background.
“Mr. Hicks is a little bit of an unusual defendant. He has a college education, a bachelor’s degree. By most accounts he would be described as having had a successful semi-pro basketball career,” Carr said.
Hicks held his head down for most of Wednesday’s hearing. When it was his turn to speak he apologized to his family, although no one from his family attended the hearing.
“I apologize to my community, my family,” Hicks said. “I made some bad decisions.”
Johnston said he hoped the sentencing would be used as a life changing event for Hicks. Johnston also warned Hicks. If he is convicted of another crime he could be considered a career offender, which comes with a lengthy prison sentence, the judge said. Hicks has a 2010 drug conviction from Putnam County.
“You have the potential to be a proud member of society and to make an impact in the community in a positive way. What I hope is that you will view this case as a turning point. ... Only you can decide that,” the judge told him.
The charges, which Hicks previously admitted to in deals made with federal prosecutors, exposed him to a potential $1.25 million fine. Johnston didn’t impose a fine, but Hicks must pay 23 people about $11,000 in restitution — something he volunteered to do, his lawyer noted. It’s not clear who those 23 people are.
“If it were really fraud,” Johnston said, “You would have tried to get money, but you wouldn’t have bothered to bring the kids here. Either way it was poorly executed.”
In September 2011, South Charleston officials discovered more than 20 athletes in a two-bedroom unfurnished apartment. The athletes had come to the area to attend a prep school Hicks was attempting to open.
Hicks was indicted by a federal grand jury last August on mail and wire fraud charges stemming from the attempt to open the prep school. He had been charged in 2011 with fraudulent schemes by South Charleston police but Kanawha County prosecutors never presented the case to a Kanawha grand jury and, instead, dismissed the allegations.
Federal prosecutors alleged Hicks had lured students to the area from around the world to attend a school that didn’t exist. Prosecutors said Hicks had orchestrated a scheme to defraud and obtain money by false pretenses.
He told potential students that attending his school would be a way for high school and post-high school students to play basketball and football and compete for college football and basketball scholarships.
In December, Hicks and prosecutors reached a deal and prosecutors charged Hicks with making a false statement to a federal investigator. That felony charge was filed by way of information, which is similar to an indictment but can’t be filed without a defendant’s consent. It usually signals a defendant has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Prosecutors said they’d agree to dismiss the mail and wire fraud charges against him if he pleaded guilty to the false statement charge. Hicks had already pleaded guilty to the heroin charge in June 2016.
Hicks told a federal investigator in April 2013 that he “did not get a dime” from anyone related to the prep academy, which was a lie, he admitted.
“This statement and representation was false, fictitious and fraudulent, as defendant Daniel Andrew Hicks then and there well knew, because [Hicks] had in fact received funds from at least one parent who sought to enroll a son” in the school, prosecutors wrote.
West Virginia law allows anyone to organize a prep school, with minimal oversight or regulation by state authorities.