A Chicago-area man who used his religious ties with pastors and fellow church members to lure them into a web that snared 144 victims in nine states with promises of big investment returns has pleaded guilty to numerous felonies and has been sentenced to serve 7.5 years in prison.

James E. Upshaw of Oak Brook has pleaded guilty to the charges against him. Although some of the charges are consolidated in the plea, Upshaw originally was indicted on four counts of theft of over $100,000, a Class One Felony; six counts of theft of over $10,000, a Class Two Felony; and 16 counts of securities fraud, a Class Three Felony, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

Upshaw's victims included a destitute woman who took her last dollars and won $812,000 at a casino only to be taken in by the con artist, a woman represented by famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran who won a medical malpractice settlement and a pastor who invested church funds. Several of Upshaw's victims were older than 60.

Holding himself out as a preacher, praying during his presentations and implying that his investment decisions were communicated to him by God, Upshaw duped his victims into "investing" $6.5 million with him between 2001 and 2004.

Upshaw paid out approximately $4.5 of the $6.5 million to investors as purported returns on their investments, and in some instances, as a return of principal. He used the remaining $2 million to run his business, pay himself and his wife, make a down payment on a $1 million house in Oak Brook and pay other debts.

It appears from thousands of records that only about $80,000 of the $6.5 million actually was invested.

All the investors' funds were deposited in Illinois banks. Upshaw managed to pay money to early investors by using money that came in from new investors, a classic pyramid scheme. However, his failure to invest the money and his lavish lifestyle eventually caught up with him and his checks to investors started bouncing.

Known as an "affinity fraud," in which a criminal or con artist convinces people to trust him because they share a common religious or ethnic background, Upshaw not only hit Chicago-area churches but made numerous presentations across the country to preach his special brand of investment gospel.

"James Upshaw used his charisma, charm and seeming trustworthiness to bilk nearly 150 people to hand over their hard-earned money and savings," Madigan said. "This crime is especially heinous because people truly believed he was looking out for their best interests. In fact, the only interest he was looking out for was his own."

Madigan said Upshaw operated a company called Upshaw and Associates, LLC, located in Westchester. The business provided tax return preparation and consultation services, and after 2001, investment advice.

Upshaw would pitch one of several purported investment vehicles to unwitting victims, including investments in commodities, commercial paper and silver and gold. He sold a monthly program, a quarterly program and a two-year program as well as a money market plan.

The amount of interest earned from a particular program was different for different investors depending on how much they invested, how they wanted the interest paid and how strapped Upshaw was for money.

Madigan's office separated the charges into two different indictments because one of the cases involved Upshaw promising to represent a victim in a tax matter she was involved in with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which was different from his other crimes.

In that case, Upshaw not only failed to provide the woman with the promised representation, but he also stole the money she gave him to pay the IRS, Madigan said.

While Madigan's office is seeking restitution for investors, at this time, there are no known assets with which to repay victims roughly $3 million they are owed.

In a civil case last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) seized Upshaw's home and other assets.

"A man who once had millions of other people's money now has about $700 in a bank account," Madigan said. "This is a heartbreaking, cautionary tale for potential investors to very carefully check out whom they trust their money with, no matter how that person presents himself."