Jim Dey: Defendant died before federal trial

Everyone — the judge, potential jurors and prosecuting and defense lawyers — was on hand for the start of an expected two-week trial at the federal courthouse in Urbana except the man who mattered most — the defendant.

So U.S. Judge Michael McCuskey issued an arrest warrant for Colin Shields, a former Champaign County horse broker charged in connection with financial crimes that included the theft of more than $500,000 from his grandmother.

But Shields, who was in his late 30s, was not on the run. Authorities found his body May 9 at the residence where he had been staying on home detention in Kirksville, Mo., a suspected self-inflicted asphyxiation. Although he was a graduate of Rantoul Township High School and a longtime local resident, funeral services were held in Missouri.

Shields' death brought an end to a storm of federal and state civil and criminal litigation involving his family members and business associates and has devastated those who knew him both personally and professionally.

"Colin was my first grandchild and I loved him very much. I still do," said Patricia Shields, the victim of the alleged embezzlement scheme for which Colin Shields was to be tried.

Chad Beckett, an Urbana lawyer who represented Shields in his business ventures, said he was "very disturbed" to hear the news of Shields' death.

"He was a very pleasant person to be around. He had an air of civility," said Beckett, who said Shields bought and sold Arabian and Dutch Harness horses.

Beckett said that Shields ran a profitable business from his office in Huntington Towers in Champaign until business reversals and an alleged theft of proprietary information in the mid-2000s damaged his operation.

Shields was indicted by a federal grand jury in late December 2009 on theft and tax crimes that allegedly occurred between 2006 and 2009. Federal authorities alleged that during that time Shields "gained his grandmother's confidence and handled his grandmother's finances" but used that control, including a power of attorney, to "access her accounts and funds to support his own lifestyle."

All told, the grand jury indictment alleged, Shields "diverted in total approximately $557,000 from his grandmother's accounts" at the Dewey State Bank and the Central Illinois Bank to businesses he controlled, including Shields Management and MCS Construction & Excavating.

Then he spent that money, the indictment alleged, on personal expenses, including "over $200,000 to pay on American Express account," "over $25,000 to pay membership-related expenses to the Champaign Country Club," as well as additional funds to pay for a Ford Expedition and an investment in a software company. Shields also was charged with failing to file federal income tax returns as well as failing to pay taxes on the money he allegedly stole.

Courthouse observers said the trial would have been quite a show, with multiple witnesses called by both the prosecution and the defense. Among the prosecution witnesses was Beckett, who said he was expecting to testify until he received a call from the prosecutor's office informing him of Shields' death.

"All of it would have been aired," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller, including much of the family acrimony that was generated by the criminal allegations and civil lawsuits filed among members of this prominent Rantoul-area family.

Now, Miller said, he's waiting to receive Shields' death certificate from the Adair County, Mo., coroner's office before officially closing the case.

After the December 2009 indictment, U.S. Magistrate David Bernthal declined to hold Shields in jail prior to trial. But Bernthal did order that Shields remain confined to the home of a friend in Kirksville, Mo., with electronic monitoring. It was at that custody hearing that Shields' father, Philip Shields, testified of the personal fear he felt for his son and described altercations that occurred between them in 2007 and 2008. The father said he was afraid his son "will come after me."

An IRS agent testified at the same hearing that Shields was armed with a gun when he and other officers arrested him. Shields later sought to modify the conditions of his pre-trial release on the grounds that he "is a model pretrial citizen and has shown exemplary compliance" with the court-imposed conditions. The federal government opposed Shields' request, and he remained on home detention.

Champaign County court records show that Shields sued others and was sued himself in connection with his business activities.

In December 2010, two days before he was indicted, Colin Shields sued the family business, Shields Soil Service, a land-leasing business, over his desire to sell his shares in the company to people outside the family.

Champaign lawyer Mark Palmer, who represented the family, said family members opposed the effort because Shields Soil Service is strictly a family enterprise. Palmer said Colin Shields wanted to sell the stock because "he needed money" and the lawsuit was later settled on terms he declined to disclose.

In 2005, Colin Shields sued a former employee in connection with allegations that the employee had stolen proprietary materials from his horse-brokering business and provided it to his customers, severely damaging his business. That lawsuit still is pending in county court, the most recent docket entry showing it was put on hold in January pending the outcome of Shields' criminal trial.

In September 2009, Shields' grandmother sued Shields seeking a court order that he fully vacate her home. The lawsuit alleged that Colin Shields had been living at his grandmother's home, had moved out in February 2009 but had "refused to remove his personal belongings from the premises and unlawfully withholds possession of the premises" from her.

Mrs. Shields said the litigation cost her $10,000 she couldn't afford to spend and that her grandson's thefts wiped out most of her assets.

"I didn't have anything," she said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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