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.