A Bozeman man who stole more than $300,000 from his disabled and elderly clients was sentenced Thursday morning in Missoula’s U.S. District Court to 2 1/2 years in prison and will be forced to pay the entire amount in restitution to his victims.

William Wise, 50, was charged with felony mail fraud in April after federal investigators found he embezzled $369,582 from Social Security, Veterans Affairs, U.S. Railroad Retirement and private accounts of 36 elderly or disabled individuals from 2007 to 2011.

Wise established his business, Walking Cross Inc., in 1995 and funneled his clients’ money to his own accounts to fund his lifestyle. Wise said he struggled to live within his means and used the funds to pay several credit cards, his personal expenses and for his children’s summer camps.

“Greed would be a simple way to describe it,” Judge Dana L. Christensen said in his sentencing statement.

Gayle Hegland was one of three victims who testified at Thursday morning’s sentencing. She emotionally explained how Wise stole $8,433 from her Social Security back pay and refused to send her money so she could visit sick and dying relatives.

“I feel like Bill Wise has not only stolen my dreams, but my life, too,” Hegland said.

She became disabled after decades of teaching and now suffers from mental health issues and chronic pain from a partial amputation of her foot. The back pay was supposed to help her find permanent housing and purchase a used car. Now, she must live month to month on a $721 disability check and her old car has become unsafe.

“My mental health has worsened due to what Bill Wise has done to me,” she explained.

Helen Carey, a personal representative of a deceased woman named Audrey Reese, discovered Wise had taken more than $87,000 of Reese’s money in the four years he served as her power of attorney. Reese, who suffered from dementia, spent her career teaching children with special needs. After her death in 2011, Wise adamantly refused to meet with Carey and then refused to send her copies of Reese’s financial statements.

“He took advantage of an old woman who was demented and sick,” she said. “Audrey worked very, very hard for years. It’s wrong that Bill Wise had the benefit of her hard labor instead of the beneficiaries of her estate.”

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Al Avignone, Wise’s attorney, called his client’s behavior since the investigation started in 2012 “exemplary” and claimed that the charges were inconsistent with who he knew Wise to be. Wise said it’s not enough for him to apologize and he was ashamed of his behavior.

“I was aware of … Gayle’s dreams and I selfishly disregarded them,” Wise said in a brief, but mournful apology to the court and the victims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chad Spraker told the court Wise was able to commit fraud because of the vulnerable position of his aging and disabled clientele. Even though Wise has no criminal history, is a member of a church and holds down a steady managerial position at Walmart, he has a history of disturbingly similar behavior.

In 2001, he was confronted for stealing from a client, and in 2009 he stole $26,000 from his own mother-in-law, but she refused to report the incident to law enforcement, Spraker said.

“We would note that the shame and embarrassment wasn’t enough to stop him,” Spraker said, before asking the court for a minimum of 51 months in prison – a sharp contrast to Avignone’s request of 15 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.

“We need to look and think about who Mr. Wise is,” Christensen said before coming to a conclusion.

In his sentencing decision, Christensen said Wise cooperated with law enforcement and has accepted responsibility for his crimes. Wise has a supportive family, was the primary provider to his children and is 10 credits shy of receiving his bachelor’s degree.

“I think 30 months is long enough for this individual,” Christensen said. The prison sentence will be followed by three years of supervised release. Once he is released, he will be required to pay $500 a month in restitution.

It’s a delicate balance between punishment and responsibility to the victims.

“If he’s incarcerated, how is he going to pay restitution?” Carey questioned. “That bothers me.”

Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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