Former Conneaut Lake Park owner returning to prison

Gary Harris once hailed as a hero for rescuing the park

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Former Conneaut Lake Park owner and would-be savior Gary Harris, convicted of tax evasion and fraud in connection with the historic park, was sentenced yesterday in Akron, Ohio, to 151 months in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge John Adams also imposed the maximum fine of $95,000 and ordered Harris, 65, to pay the cost of prosecution along with his co-defendant, Michael Kotula.

Last month, Kotula, 49, of Euclid Ohio, was sentenced to 70 months and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine, in addition to another $82,806 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.

Harris' wife, Tamara Schwenker Harris, 34, got 15 months and must pay the IRS $17,054.

After a four-week trial this past spring, all three were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Gary Harris and Kotula also were convicted of income tax evasion.

Agents from the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS and the tax division of the U.S. Justice Department said Harris and Kotula used a web of trusts and corporate entities to hide $18 million in income generated by businesses they controlled across the United States, including Conneaut Lake Park.

Harris, who lived lavishly on a Conneaut, Ohio, ranch where he once planned to build a helipad on an island in his private lake, bought the 111-year-old Crawford County park in mid-1996 for $2.3 million in gold coins, checks and cash, saving it from bankruptcy.

At the time, he was hailed as a hero for rescuing the park, home of one of the nation's oldest wooden roller coasters and a favorite destination for generations of amusement park fans in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio.

That goodwill didn't last, however. In 1997, Harris went to prison for tax evasion. It was only the latest in his history of federal and state convictions, mostly for tax evasion and white-collar crimes.

While in prison after his 1997 guilty plea, he tried to hang on to the park's rides and other money-making attractions, but ultimately lost a legal battle over ownership.

In 2001, a Crawford County judge turned the park over to a court-appointed trustee, Herbert Brill of Churchill. It is now being run as a nonprofit community operation.

Harris was released from prison in 2002 and was still on probation last year when he was indicted again by a federal grand jury in Cleveland.

Federal agents said he and Kotula, also a convicted felon who handled Harris' affairs while he was in prison, owned various corporations, including a sign company, an oil and gas company, a California railroad company and other entities.

They also established Summer Resorts Inc. and Property on the Lake Inc. to manage Conneaut Lake Park and set up more than a dozen fictitious trusts.

Beginning in 1994, Harris and Kotula used those fake entities to mask the ownership of their assets and income. Harris also hid some of his income in a secret account in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of France that has a reputation as a tax haven. In recent years, the IRS has made it a priority to crack down on offshore accounts.

Only some of Harris' tax fraud was related to the amusement park. He diverted about $400,000 in business receipts from the park, for example, used them for his personal expenses and didn't pay taxes on them.

He also used thousands of dollars of the park's money to pay his legal fees for the court battle over ownership.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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