Berkeley wine seller pleads guilty to fraud


John Fox, the owner of the now-shuttered Premier Cru wine warehouse in Berkeley, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in what a judge described as a $45 million "wine Ponzi scheme."

KTVU cameras were rolling as Fox turned himself in to the U.S. Marshal's office in Oakland. He wouldn't say then why he and his bankrupt company stiffed thousands of wine lovers around the world.

Fox is already facing at least half a dozen civil lawsuits from customers.

On Thursday, Fox, 66, entered a guilty plea in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to wire fraud for bilking a  customer from Hong Kong who says he bought nearly a million dollars in French wine that he never received

in his plea agreement, Fox admitted to using customers' money to pay the mortgage on his Alamo house, pay for his daughter's college tuition and golf club memberships and to buy or lease Mercedes, Corvettes, Ferraris, a Maserati and other expensive cars. He also says he spent $900,000 for women he met online. 

Cameras weren't allowed in court as fox entered his plea. His hands were shackled to his waist. No one showed up to support him in court.

As part of a plea deal, Fox is expected to be sentenced in December to 6.5 years in prison. 

"He worked at this business for 30 years, and he's truly sorry for what has happened," his defense attorney Bob Breakstone told KTVU. "He's trying to make amends now by pleading guilty."

But many of fox's victims fear they won't be made whole. they say they expected to wait a little for "wine futures," or vintages still in the barrel. but after waiting for years and never getting their bottles, they say Fox left them with a bitter taste.

Now, he owes at least $45 million to 9,000 customers.

That's on top of $6.5 million he owes creditors.

But earlier this year, both Premier Cru and Fox filed for bankruptcy. The wood-paneled warehouse on University Avenue in Berkeley is now closed, $70 million in the hole. Lawsuits filed over the fraud are now on hold.

"He will try to make restitution as best he can," Breakstone said. "Because that's part of the judgment that's going to be against him. is he going to be able to pay $45 million dollars? I have no idea."

KTVU spoke to Bob Cusick, an alleged victim from New York, who thinks he knows the answer.

"Once we learned that this was not just a case of wines being delayed and received and shipped out late, that it was a scheme to lull forward deliveries and a Ponzi scheme, I knew I was not going to receive a cent," Cusick said.

Fox will stay in custody until his sentencing in December.