Fugitive sought 'road to redemption' on Appalachian Trail, say attorneys

A Kentucky accountant that embezzled money from his former employer, a Pepsi-Cola bottling factory, was arrested while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Butler County Jail/AP
James Hammes of Lexington, Ky., is scheduled to be sentenced June 22, after pleading guilty in 2015 to wire fraud and agreeing to pay back millions embezzled from his employer, a Cincinnati-based Pepsi-Cola bottler.

Many people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail say the experience was transformative.

But attorneys for a Kentucky accountant, who pleaded guilty to charges relating to the embezzlement of $8.7 million from his employer before spending six years on the run, say their client's experience hiking the Appalachian Trail put him on "the road to redemption."

In the sentencing memorandum filed Friday, lawyers for James Hammes are seeking a three-year prison sentence. The federal government is seeking more than seven years, given the amount of money stolen and the fact that Mr. Hammes went on the lam.

Authorities said Hammes' money laundering and wire fraud scheme began more than 17 years ago. A native of Milwaukee, he worked as a controller for the southern division of G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Inc. Federal authorities said that Hammes embezzled money from his employer by writing checks to a fake account, listed under a name that appeared to be a vendor for G&J, and then moving the money into his own accounts.

Hammes pleaded guilty last year. He has agreed to pay $6.68 million to his former employer and $1 million to its insurer. Federal authorities have already taken more than $11,000 in cash he had when arrested, and an additional $70,000 that was discovered in a storage unit in Fort Wayne, Ind.

People who knew Hammes on the Appalachian Trail, where he went by the trail name "Bismarck," said that he was friendly. Friends and relatives had no idea where he had gone, and assumed that he had left the country.

Hammes was arrested in May 2015 during the Trail Days festival in Damascus, Va., an annual community gathering among Appalachian Trail hikers. The show "American Greed" is credited with leading to his arrest. A 2012 episode of the show featured the sister of Hammes' late first wife and other members of her family. Another Appalachian Trail hiker recognized "Bismark" from the episode.

Hammes will be sentenced on June 22 in Cincinnati.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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