Evidence Forces Former State Senator to Plead Guilty
CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) _ The story of a former state senator reads like a Hollywood script: a dramatically staged drowning, a two-year manhunt spanning four continents, and tales of torture in an island jail.
And just as his flight began three years ago on Labor Day when he faked his own scuba-diving death to avoid prosecution, David Friedland ended the tale in much the same dramatic way.
In a surprise move, four days after testimony began in federal court in Camden in his pension-fund fraud trial, Friedland abruptly ended his trial Thursday by pleading guilty to one count of racketeering.
A 47-count indictment charged the 50-year-old Friedland with heading a scheme to defraud $20 million from the pension fund of Teamsters Local 701 in North Brunswick.
″I want to get this episode of my life over with,″ Friedland said after his guilty plea. ″I want to look ahead, not at the past.″
Two weeks earlier during jury selection, a relaxed and smiling Friedland said he was looking forward to the trial and exonerating himself. Three co- defendants already had been convicted in the case.
″As they say, ’the truth will set you free,‴ Friedland said at the time.
Defense attorneys said they were battling unbeatable odds in the case, which included an 11-page statement that Friedland gave to a federal agent after his capture in the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.
There was also the testimony of Joseph J. Higgins, Friedland’s former partner in a bogus mortgage company set up in Florida to skim money from the pension fund.
In return for the guilty plea, prosecutors said they dropped remaining charges against Friedland, including perjury, mail and wire fraud, and violating the Employee Retirement Income Act.
The plea bargain includes a provision not to prosecute Friedland for his global flight, said John Yacovelle, one of Friedland’s attorneys.
Yacovelle said defense attorneys had been negotiating with the government for several months to reach an agreement.
Friedland faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 28 before Chief U.S. District Judge John F. Gerry.
Federal authorities say Friedland, a flamboyant, disbarred lawyer, staged a fake drowning in the Bahamas on Labor Day 1985, just before he was indicted along with the two union pension fund trustees and the fund’s lawyer.
His disappearance also came three weeks before a hearing on his request for a reduction of a seven-year prison sentence for a 1980 conviction of taking $360,000 for arranging a $4 million loan from the same pension fund. Friedland is serving that sentence at Mercer County jail in Trenton.
Friedland spent 26 months in Africa, Asia and Europe before his arrest Dec. 12 in the Maldives. While in the islands, prosecutors say Friedland ran five scuba diving shops under the name Richard Harley.
During the return flight to the United States, Friedland gave a detailed statement to a federal agent. He later attempted to suppress that statement, saying he was thinking unclearly because of conditions of his confinement while he was held by Maldivian authorities coupled with the effects of medication he was taking.
Friedland said that whenever he tried to sleep, his jailers awakened him by smashing a stick against his bunk.
Friedland said he became so desperate to remain on the islands that he contacted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi asking for sanctuary. At one point, he said, he saw a vision of a hooded figure - the prophet Mohammed - beckoning him to convert to the Islamic faith.
″I began to believe Mohammed was the prophet of God,″ Friedland testified. ″I heard a voice say ’God is now.‴