A former Augusta man was sentenced Thursday to 30 months in federal prison for defrauding a half dozen banks in central and southern Maine by cashing or attempting to cash counterfeit and altered checks.

Jacob R. Choate, 27, who had most recently lived in Tucson, Arizona, had pleaded guilty Oct. 26, 2015, in U.S. District Court in Bangor to one count of bank fraud. He was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge John A. Woodcock.

The defrauded banks included four in Augusta: Bank of Maine, two Bangor Savings Bank sites and a TD Bank location.

Choate had successfully cashed 11 checks, and he was ordered to pay $21,866.21 in restitution.

In documents filed in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney James M. Moore said the U.S. Postal Service uncovered Choate’s involvement in the scheme while investigating complaints of stolen mail and reports of cashed stolen checks. Video surveillance cameras at the banks captured images of Choate as he cashed, or attempted to cash, each check.

The offense occurred July 4 through Aug. 7, 2014, in Maine.

On Thursday, Choate was escorted into the courtroom in shackles. They were removed by U.S. marshals prior to the start of the hearing. Choate has been held in state custody awaiting sentencing. He was wearing a dark blue short-sleeved jail uniform over a white long-sleeved thermal undershirt.

“I graduated with a GED and some college,” Choate told the judge in response to a series of questions designed to determine whether Choate was competent to be sentenced.

Choate spoke briefly with his attorney, Matthew Erickson, before the judge entered the courtroom.

Choate apologized to the victims, the businesses and banks affected, including two representatives of Bangor Savings Bank who were in the courtroom, and told the judge, “My decisions, poor and selfish as they were, will never happen again.”

Choate said he is looking forward to doing his sentence and to substance abuse therapy.

“I have a couple of goals: to be a better father to my daughter, to graduate college, and to work somewhere in the food industry,” he said.

The judge outlined the fraudulent check scheme at the sentencing hearing, saying Choate stole checks from mailboxes and mail receptacles, altered them and cashed them.

“Your client has committed such a horrendous string of crimes,” Woodcock said in discussing the fact that Choate will be in prison for longer than 30 months. “He’s basically committed crime after crime after crime since he’s been 17.”

Choate’s criminal history includes assaults involving a knife, a baseball bat and an ax handle, although his attorney said the crimes of violence stopped when Choate turned 20.

In June 2015, a codefendant, Ryan Pomerleau, also of Augusta, was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the conspiracy to steal mail.

Moore wrote that Pomerleau “was stealing mail, altering or reproducing the checks discovered in the stolen mail and then providing the checks to Jacob Choate and others for the purpose of cashing the checks and splitting the money received from the banks.”

Moore said a third person also received altered checks made out to himself and that Pomerleau invited him to go ‘mail diving’ in Massachusetts to steal mail.

The scheme was discovered when the third man was arrested on burglary charges in July 2014 and authorities recovered mail that was addressed to several businesses on Industrial Drive in Augusta that had been discarded in the trash at a motel where he lived.

On Thursday at the sentencing hearing, Moore told the judge that the fraud scheme caused hardships for numerous businesses and postal customers who had to deal with their accounts being frozen and then opening new accounts as well as trying to track checks they had issued that were legitimate.

Moore said one physical therapy business faced big overdraft penalties and charges that almost forced it into bankruptcy.

“Total losses are approaching a quarter-million dollars,” Moore said, adding, “Customers lost faith in the ability of the Postal Service to handle mail.”

Moore said Choate committed the crimes to support a heroin addiction that had him using the drug 10 times a day when he was arrested. He was also homeless at the time.

According to published reports, Choate was arrested in January 2015 in Tucson and charged with aggravated robbery in connection with the theft of $2,000 worth of purses from a department store. He had been held at the Pima County Adult Detention Center in Tucson until he was brought to Maine to answer to the federal bank fraud charge. He remains in Arizona custody while he has been housed in Maine.

Choate also has several warrants out for his arrest on state charges in Maine, including a charge of unlawful possession of heroin on May 26, 2014, in Gardiner. Choate is scheduled to be in Augusta to respond to the state charges on Tuesday and to be returned to Arizona for sentencing there at the end of the month.

Erickson said it was his understanding that the sentences on all the charges were to be concurrent and to be served in federal prison.

The defense attorney told the judge that Choate “does certainly have potential. If he could stay clean, stay sober, he has a good chance to become a productive member of society.”

“Mr. Choate, your behavior has to stop,” Woodcock said in imposing sentence.

“Yes, sir,” Choate responded.

The 30-month sentence includes a court recommendation that Choate participate in a 500-hour comprehensive drug treatment program. The sentence was recommended by both the defense and the prosecution.

The judge ordered restitution be paid to the following victims: Bangor Savings, $5,632.41; Camden National Bank, $2,492; KeyBank, $432; Peoples United Bank, $3,808; Saco and Biddeford Savings, $1,300; TD Bank, $6,570; Maine Properties, $500; and FAHW-LLC, $1,132.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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