More than three years after putting a “closed for business” sign on his Belmont eatery and fleeing the state, James Kirk Baldi faced his embezzlement victims Thursday and apologized.
"I was wrong and I'm truly sorry," Baldi, 50, told two men who had employed him to manage their finances in 2008 and 2009. "You were always good to me and I was wrong. I will work hard, and I will pay you back."
Baldi, who embezzled more than $200,000 from area businesses, said he started siphoning money from his bookkeeping clients to keep his restaurant, Bel Rio, afloat amid recession and conflict with the city over zoning and a noise ordinance that thwarted his plans to book entertainment.
"It would have been better for me and for the victims if I had just thrown in the towel," he said. "I kept thinking I could turn it around. I was prideful ... I kept thinking, 'I'll be able to get this back before there's any problem.'"
Charlottesville Circuit Judge Edward Hogshire sentenced Baldi to serve a nearly three-and-a-half year active prison sentence, with credit for time served since authorities arrested him Jan. 4 in San Francisco. Baldi pleaded guilty to five felony charges in a deal with city and county prosecutors.
A federal prosecutor and Internal Revenue Service investigator sat near the back of the courtroom Thursday, at times taking notes as Baldi recounted his two years living as a fugitive. Prosecutors said federal charges against Baldi are pending.
A search of federal court records online came up empty for the slight, bespectacled former college professor, who obtained a doctorate from the University of Virginia, according to court testimony.
Baldi testified Thursday that his plan upon fleeing Charlottesville with his girlfriend, Kristian Throckmorton, 29, was to work until he amassed enough money to repay his victims and then reach out to authorities in the hopes of skirting prison time.
"I know it's crazy, but that's what I had gotten in my head," he said.
The low end of sentencing guidelines for Baldi's charges before he fled called for a two-and-a-half-year prison term, prosecutors said.
"If the defendant had turned himself in in 2010, at least he'd stand a shot of getting out of prison sometime soon and seeing his children," said Elliott Casey, assistant commonwealth's attorney for Albemarle County.
Baldi’s company, Bel Rio LLC, was dissolved in December 2010 on the same day Hogshire awarded Baldi’s former restaurant partner, Gareth Weldon, $45,900 in damages and court costs.
Weldon sued Baldi for breaching his fiduciary duty and conversion, or, making unilateral decisions in a way that deprived Weldon of his stake in their shared property, according to court records.
Throckmorton remains in California, Baldi said. He told Hogshire that she would be able to secure a job for him at a San Francisco restaurant upon his release. The earnings he could make in San Francisco would ensure swifter repayment, Baldi said.
Hogshire said he struggled to reconcile Baldi's conduct and reasoning with his "tremendous capabilities."
“I think he's truly sorry for what he did," Hogshire said before issuing the sentence and ordering Baldi to devote at least 40 percent of his net income to repaying his victims after his release from prison.
Baldi owes about $180,000 to the parent company of Wood Grill Buffet; $1,643 to Duraclean and $19,281 to the owner of Cafe Cubano, according to court testimony.
"The quicker he gets out of jail, the quicker the victims can be made whole," said Baldi's attorney, Scott Goodman.