MIAMI (AP) — A prominent South Florida businessman was sentenced Wednesday to five years in federal prison for turning what had been a legitimate real estate investment business into a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme affecting hundreds of investors, including a well-known Roman Catholic prep school.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams imposed the maximum possible sentence on 73-year-old Gaston Cantens, who had previously pleaded guilty to a single wire and mail fraud conspiracy charge. Prosecutors said the roughly 450 victims, most of them elderly and many former friends of Cantens, lost at least $20 million.

Cantens had asked for a lenient sentence, insisting he never intended to cheat anyone but was simply trying to save a floundering company in 2008 when the economic recession triggered steep losses. Cantens also asked for house arrest, saying he needed to be home to care for his seriously ill 75-year-old wife, Teresita Cantens.

But Williams said Cantens had ruined the retirement years for too many people through the fraud.

“People need to know, all people, no matter who they are or their circumstances, that there are consequences to what they do, and punishment,” the judge said.

Many of the victims were members of Miami’s tight-knit Cuban-American community. One investor was Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, which traces its origins to Cuba and from which Cantens graduated. Prosecutor Ron Davidson said Cantens used connections with the school and church to further his scam.

“This defendant targeted his own community,” Davidson said. “They have lost their life’s savings because of this defendant’s conduct.”

Still, Cantens had about two dozen supporters at the hearing, including Belen’s former president and principal, the Rev. Jose Marcelino Garcia. He said the school lost more than $1 million and that everyone at the institution trusted Cantens.

“We never thought that this could happen,” Garcia said.

Court documents show that for many years, Cantens’ company Royal West Properties Inc. operated legitimately. The company offered high rates of return for investments in real estate, mainly in southwest Florida, but fell on hard times and eventually was forced into bankruptcy in 2009.

Before that, Davidson said Cantens was paying older investors with money raised from new ones in classic Ponzi scheme fashion, while making false assurances the money was coming from mortgage payments or other transactions.

Henry Castro, 78, said he lost about $2.3 million in the scheme and that the bankruptcy court was offering investors like him only three cents on the dollar for their losses. Castro and others who attended the sentencing hearing were disappointed Cantens could not face more prison time.

“I don’t think five years is enough for all the harm he has done to so many poor people,” Castro said.

Cantens told the judge he accepted responsibility for wrongdoing but said his actions were aimed at making investors whole again.

“I will continue to live for the rest of my days feeling this terrible remorse,” he said. “I only wish I could return the money they have lost.”

One of Cantens’ sons is former state Rep. Gaston I. Cantens, now vice president at the Florida Crystals Corp. sugar company. He was never implicated in the scheme.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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