Santa Paula Times

Palmer, Stewart ordered to trial for alleged fraud related to SP farm

March 23, 2012
Santa Paula News

There is sufficient evidence to hold for trial an area woman and another defendant charged with more than 70 felony counts in an alleged fraudulent transaction involving the 51-acre Santa Paula Wheeler Canyon site of Healthy Family Farms, a judge ruled following an hours-long preliminary hearing.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Mark Borrell set a post-preliminary hearing arraignment March 30 for Sharon Palmer, 51, who is charged with 38 counts, including one count of tax evasion, and James Stewart, 64, of Los Angles who is charged with 37 counts. Palmer is behind bars in lieu of a $500,000 bail, and Stewart is free on a $100,000 bail.

A co-defendant, Larry Otting, 66, of Los Angeles, initially charged with 14 felony counts, testified against Palmer and Stewart during Thursday’s hearing. He will plead guilty to one count of grand theft, and is facing up to 180 days in jail and three years of probation. Otting’s bail was exonerated after he pleaded guilty.

During the hearing the prosecutor asked the judge to alter the criminal complaint to drop 10 overt acts that cannot be proved.

A major part of the case centers on Otting’s name and credit rating being used under false pretenses to get a bank loan for $1.1 million to buy the 51-acre land in Santa Paula where Healthy Family Farms is located and was being sold for $2 million. Palmer and Stewart are accused of conspiring to recruit people - in some cases using simple fliers - to invest more than $400,000 in the goat and poultry ranch, never telling them the money would be used as a down payment for the bank loan. 

Palmer previously was convicted of two counts of fraud of an elderly person and two counts of grand theft in 2000. She also has a conviction in federal court for mail fraud. 

Palmer also faces felony charges in Ventura and Los Angeles County on allegations that she was part of a criminal conspiracy to produce and sell unlicensed raw goats’ milk and related dairy products in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Palmer, Stewart and a third defendant have pleaded not guilty to the charges in that case. Their arrests in August after a multiagency raid on Rawesome - Stewart’s Venice-based natural foods co-op - have become a cause célèbre for raw-milk advocates.