U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez didn’t know what to make of the man standing in his courtroom for sentencing on September 7, 2010. Dave Sanders was a successful corporate sales executive—a widower who was raising his three young children in a suburb outside Sacramento, California. His shoes gleamed from the energetic polishing he’d given them that morning, and his buzz cut gave him the appearance of an earnest, middle-aged Boy Scout. But now the 43-year-old had confessed to operating a bizarre paramilitary vigilante squad that targeted people involved in Ponzi schemes. His team included a 365-pound US postal worker and a woman who looked like a Playboy Playmate; it was equal parts SWAT team and three-ring circus, and it had landed Sanders here, in a Sacramento courthouse, facing up to 11 years in prison.
It would be one thing if Sanders had been trying to get his own money back—the judge might understand that. But Sanders wasn’t a victim and barely knew the people he was trying to help. He was the senior vice president of sales and marketing at a company that sold fiber-optic and copper cable. He had no criminal history. In fact, many in his industry viewed him as an inspiration: He had twice been selected Telecommunications Speaker of the Year. The judge was baffled. “It seems out of character to me that someone who … is raising kids on his own, has a job, is employed, on weekends decides ‘I want to dress up’ and give the impression that they were involved in law enforcement,” Mendez said.
Sanders stood ramrod straight. He was due to give a speech at a telecommunications conference later that week. Back at his office, there were millions of dollars in deals pending. It was a normal Tuesday, except for the fact that he might be on his way to federal prison within the hour. The judge asked if he’d like to explain himself.
Sanders hesitated. It had seemed simple in the beginning. Now everything was so complicated, he wasn’t sure what the truth was. He had to admit that he might have gotten involved with the wrong people—that he might have become part of a scam within a scam.
“I thought that maybe I could somehow help the folks,” Sanders said, struggling to hold back tears. But what actually happened, he told the judge, “was beyond explanation.”
One thing you have to know about Dave Sanders: He used to moonlight as a bodyguard. In 1994, while working his way up in the staid “cabling” industry, as it is known, he enrolled at the Advanced Security Institute, a Sacramento-area school that offered firearm, baton, and tear gas training. He learned a little bit of jujitsu, practiced shooting guns at night, got pretty adept with a baton, and figured out how to handcuff people with a flick of the wrist. It was a lot of fun.
When he finished the training, he got a gun permit, a security guard license, and a badge that said he was a certified “executive protection agent.” To his surprise he began to get hired from time to time to follow dignitaries and celebrities around. He was 6?3? and 220 pounds, so nobody seemed to care that he was a sales executive who spent most of his days discussing the finer points of RS-232 data signals and the advantages of hot-melt fiber-optic connectors.
Cathy, his wife, didn’t think much of his hobby and finally convinced him to quit in 2000. They had kids, he was a serious businessman: It was time to put the executive protection badge away. Sanders didn’t have time anyway. In 2004, he was appointed national sales director for the voice and data division at Leviton, a multibillion-dollar electrical supply company, and Cathy got pregnant with their third child. Sanders was in his late thirties, was making mid-six figures, and bought a new car every year. Life was pretty good.
And then, soon after the baby was born, Cathy was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At first the doctors were optimistic. They said she’d be fine. She went through intensive chemo and had surgery, but the cancer metastasized. After fighting the disease for a year and a half, she died on July 24, 2006. They had been married for nearly 13 years, and now Sanders was suddenly on his own with a baby, a 7-year-old son, and an 11-year-old daughter. He felt like he had been broken in half.
His life turned into a blur. He rushed from sales meetings to swim lessons and then to basketball practices and counseling sessions. At night, after he’d put the kids to sleep, he avoided his old bedroom; he couldn’t sleep in the bed he’d shared with Cathy. Often he’d drift to sleep in a chair in his home office. The walls were lined with articles from magazines like Electrical Wholesaling and Cabling Installation & Maintenance that documented his professional success—Cathy had proudly framed many of them. In the photos, he was smiling and looked happy. Now stray thoughts kept him awake most nights: He was never going to hold her hand again or fall asleep beside her. She was only 33 when she died. He was left with a dull ache in his chest and the agonizing feeling that he’d been cheated.