Convicted schemer M. Derrick Peninger, already facing up to 17 1/2 years in prison, might earn even more time behind bars for failing to show up at his sentencing Monday.
U.S. District Judge P. Michael Duffy ordered that the U.S. Marshals Service find Peninger and, 40 minutes after the hearing was set to begin, dismissed court until officers arrest him on a bench warrant.
"The defendant has not appeared," Duffy said, "nor does anyone seem to know where he is."
Officials with the U.S. Marshals Service said Tuesday that they have not located Peninger.
A jury in October convicted Peninger, 50, of eight counts of mail fraud and a count of lying to an FBI agent in what investigators call a Ponzi scheme that consumed $7 million in investors' money. Authorities estimate as many as 35 people, mostly older and middle class, fell victim to Peninger's fraud.
His lies included telling investors that he controlled thousands of acres in Kansas, promising to transfer their retirement funds into new accounts with his firms, fabricating stories about oil investments, bragging about local real estate he would use to protect their investments and providing account statements that showed fake returns on investments, according to prosecutors. In reality, Peninger spent large sums of money on himself, including $340,000 given to a mistress and her store.
Peninger had been living at his mother's Daniel Island home and wearing an ankle monitor since about two weeks after his conviction. Duffy allowed him to return there from jail in order to sort through his finances and health care and to attend to his mother and his ailing stepfather.
Peninger's 72-year-old mother had read a letter to Duffy in court describing her husband's Alzheimer's disease and the couple's need to have her son home before sobbing and asking the defense attorney to read the rest.
"If that means nothing to him, it did to me," Duffy said Tuesday.
A woman previously identified in court proceedings as Peninger's mistress said she called Peninger's mother shortly after 2 p.m. Monday, his sentencing time, and that his mother said Peninger left her home 30 or 40 minutes earlier. His defense attorney, Kerry Koon, told Duffy that he did not know his client's whereabouts.
Duffy said after court that Peninger, when apprehended, will face a hearing to determine whether he behaved in contempt of court. That could increase his sentence, according to the judge.
Duffy said a defendant has not appeared for sentencing only once or twice in his 15 years on the bench.
"The only reason you are concerned with that is anyone faced with a long term of incarceration is always a risk," Duffy said. "But he had no previous history."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart had argued to keep Peninger in jail in October because Peninger had no job, no assets and, for a middle-age man, could be facing a daunting number of years in prison. Peninger also had arrived late on his first day of trial.
In October, he described his first three days in solitary confinement at the Charleston County Detention Center as "the bottom of life" and promised not to flee if released. After Duffy announced his order allowing him to return home, he warned Peninger that he'd be "in a heap of trouble" for any missteps.