YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The suspect who prosecutors say organized a multi-million dollar fake sports memorabilia scam turned down a plea deal Monday, which would have sentenced him to a maximum of seven years in prison.
After months of waiting, Cliff Panezich chose to hide his face as he walked into common pleas court for the first time Monday morning. Since he did so an hour late for the scheduled plea hearing, deputies were waiting to take him into custody on a bench warrant.
Panezich has been called the mastermind of the phony sports memorabilia operation, which sold customers baseballs and other items with forged signatures on eBay. He had been expected to enter a guilty plea on Monday but instead, said he would need to be promised less than three years in prison to agree to a deal.
Now, prosecutors say they will present the case to a grand jury and, if convicted, Cliff Panezich faces a minimum of 11 years in prison.
Seven others, including Panezich’s mother, Rose, have been convicted for their roles in the scheme which has been called one of the largest in U.S. history.
Jason Lenzi, of Columbiana, and Daniel Marino, Jr., of Austintown, were fined and placed on probation. Prosecutors say Lenzi showed others in the group how to set up fake bank accounts to hide the money they were making, and Marino sold the items online.
Shawn Pelo, of Warren, was sentenced to five years of probation.
As part of their agreements, all seven could be called to testify against the others.
“Originally, it was going to be a joint recommendation of three to seven years. Parties were going to agree on that being the proper range,” said Assistant Mahoning County Prosecutor Marty Desmond.
After 90 minutes of negotiating Monday morning, Panezich turned down his deal.
“I don’t want to say anything other than the fact we’ve been unable to come to an agreement,” said his lawyer, Attorney Percy Squire.
Prosecutors immediately said they would seek to have a grand jury indict Panezich on fraud, theft and money laundering charges, in addition to engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.
“He’s looking at anywhere between 30 and 40 years,” Desmond said.
Although Panezich has been free on a $100,000 bond since his arrest in April, prosecutors say he’s been living in Las Vegas the last several months. Before rescinding her bench warrant and letting Panezich go Monday morning, the judge ordered him to remain in Ohio until his trial.
Others are awaiting sentencing. Jason Moore, who was supposed to be sentenced earlier this month, has proclaimed his innocence and will continue forward with a trial.