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Emotional victim testimony, jail calls crucial in Kosciusko County jury’s guilty verdicts

Mark Soto walking into court in Kosciusko County // WSBT 22 photo

The men and women of Kosciusko County have played a crucial role in holding a Kosciusko County man accountable for his actions in a high profile saga. A grand jury charged Mark Soto in early 2016 and a different group of county citizens decided his fate as it pertained to six charges brought against him, regarding a movie deal that never happened.

Late Tuesday night, a jury found Soto guilty of two counts of corrupt business influence and one count of intimidation. The jury acquitted him of one count of corrupt business influence and two counts of intimidation. Soto was charged alongside inmate Kevin Bronson and former sheriff Aaron Rovenstine, but he was the only man to take his case to trial.

"I think justice means the same thing in every case and that is, a search for the truth," said Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tami Napier. "[Jurors] found witnesses they believed, other witnesses they didn't and some evidence they found more persuasive than others.

It took the jury nearly seven hours to reach their verdict. Many of the jurors starred at Soto as the judge read their decision, while others looked at the floor. Soto didn’t show much emotion throughout the six-day trial.

The prosecution said jurors likely relied on emotional victim testimony from Winona Lake Pastor Nate McLaurin and jail calls in making their decision.

"I think just as a human being, I certainly connected and i think those jurors connected to that emotion," said Deputy Prosecutor Matt Sarber. "What the words and those actions that were going on in those counts, had a real life impact on the victims."

The high profile case centered around a supposed movie deal about Kevin Bronson’s life; the movie and book deal never happened. But the story came to life in a Kosciusko County courtroom through more than 10 witnesses and dozens of hours of testimony.

Soto encountered Bronson in the late 90s in Warsaw and their relationship has taken many shapes from spiritual mentoring to friends to family-like according to testimony.

As part of Bronson's plea deal, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of corrupt business influence. He also agreed to testify in Soto’s trial with immunity. He took the stand for almost twelve hours over two days.

Soto testified he and Bronson haven’t spoken since the indictments came down.

“Everything he [Bronson] touches is like malignant cancer…everybody he ends up touching loses something,” said Defense Attorney Scott Lennox in closing arguments.

Lennox painted the jurors a picture of his client as “too trusting and naïve” of Bronson. But the prosecution fought that image, saying Soto had a “socially upstanding position” and used it “as a curtain to hide the truth.”

The prosecution tried to prove Soto played an integral role in business operations for Young Dragon Enterprises, LLC. That was the entity created to house Kevin Bronson's intellectual rights pertaining to the movie deal. A bank account was also created as a way to funnel money to movie efforts and Bronson.

The jury found him guilty of “intentionally or knowingly” receiving proceeds from the LLC and also engaging in a “pattern” of intimidation that related to the business.

The jury found Soto guilty of intimidating Christ Covenant Church Pastor Nate McLaurin. McLaurin testified saying he asked for the contact information for Bronson’s superior in the Aryan Brotherhood. In response, witnesses said Soto called Bronson, telling him he had messed up.

McLaurin testified he took the alleged threat to be from Soto.

Both Bronson and Soto were charged for threatening McLaurin and his family, but Bronson’s charge was dropped as part of the plea agreement.

Soto was acquitted of intimidating lawyer David Baker for legal services and for alleged threats he made toward McLaurin to secure more than $84,000 from a donor for the LLC.

The prosecution pointed towards key pieces of evidence to prove corrupt business influence: that Soto had access to bank accounts connected to the LLC, that at least one person gave $9,000 because he requested it, and that he is a partner in the LLC itself.

Another initial partner in the LLC was Nate McLaurin. He was not charged in connection to the case. They created the LLC, with the help of an attorney, David Baker.

Witnesses said McLaurin was also instrumental in setting up the bank account connected to funding movie efforts. Both McLaurin and Baker were both named as victims of the alleged intimidation by Soto and Bronson.

The initial charges were brought about by a grand jury in February 2016. Warsaw Police Department initiated the original investigation into Kevin Bronson, then leading to Mark Soto. Det. Paul Heaton leaded that investigation after Chief Scott Whitaker asked him to look into a tip regarding alleged threats Bronson made to a community member.

Heaton was also a member of Christ Covenant Church.

"We appreciate the work of the Warsaw Police Department who has maintained a professional side to this investigation despite some very challenging circumstances," said Napier. "The professionalism and ethical performance that we have seen throughout the conduct of the officers in this case...we appreciate that...the citizens of Kosciusko County, in particular Warsaw, should know that."

Follow the money

Once money was secured by investors for Bronson's supposed movie deal, McLaurin and Soto could then deposit it into a capital account. Once the money was there, Soto could then transfer it to Bronson, who couldn’t see where the investments came from.

The prosecution tried to follow the money; but there has been little evidence presented in court as to where money went once Kevin Bronson had access to it. Bank transactions showed it was often withdrawn in cash by Bronson or transferred to his personal account.

Bronson claimed he often used that money and even split some amounts with Soto. Soto said that wasn’t true.

All of the money was supposed to pay for Bronson’s living expenses or go towards the book and movie deal.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tami Napier questioned Soto on where the money went.

“You did nothing to ensure that money was spent the way people thought it was being?” questioned Napier.

“Not true,” said Soto.

Soto explained he monitored Bronson, and knew that much of the money went toward life expenses, but couldn’t answer to where all the money went. The total amount funneled through the banking accounts was nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Soto gave some of his own money, as did McLaurin and other investors.

Napier again narrowed in on the topic – asking Soto why he never asked investors to stop giving, or didn’t ask Pastor McLaurin to stop investors from donating.

Soto responded that he knew “we all” were being intimidated by Bronson. He alleged any threats that came from the Aryan Brotherhood, were relayed through Bronson. Soto said he ultimately stayed involved because he wanted to protect the safety of his family.

McLaurin testified he didn’t supervise what Bronson spent the money on and said it was “not his responsibility to know what money was earmarked for.”

McLaurin said he didn’t trust Bronson as time went along. Initially the request was for $36,000, but when spending became “outlandish,” and the alleged threats continued, he pulled out of the business deal in 2014.

He said initially, he stayed in partly because of “financial accountability;” he said if the movie profited, he planned to pay back money to investors.

‘The bridge’

The prosecution and defense spent quite some time discussing if Mark Soto was a “bridge” for Kevin Bronson. The prosecution claimed he was a bridge of credibility to the Warsaw community, including church leaders and people of wealth.

Soto’s credibility was brought up throughout trial in a Kosciusko County courtroom.

“You were the bridge between these people…between them and him,” Napier said.

Soto responded: “In some cases the answer to that is yes.”

“My purpose was to get him [Bronson] aligned with believers,” said Soto.

But the prosecution argued Soto had “increased involvement” with Bronson through the years, not the other way around.

“You were in just as deep in this whole project,” said Napier.

“I was in a project,” claimed Soto.

“You walked away from Kevin Bronson when times got tough and the money dried up,” said Napier.

Soto responded: “No.”

Soto claimed that he never put anyone in contact with Kevin Bronson to pay money towards the LLC. Defense Attorney Scott Lennox argued Pastor McLaurin, not Soto, was “the bridge.”

Soto claimed he did not know others were being threatened. On the stand Monday, he claimed that he had also received threats by an Aryan Brotherhood conveyed through Bronson.

Soto said of the Brotherhood, “I worried they [Aryan Brotherhood] might have some bad intentions toward all of us…I didn’t want to see something bad happen to anyone including my family.”

Eventually, Soto said he was trying to “move things along” with the movie. He said he was going through a difficult and emotional time in his personal life and was overwhelmed by Bronson’s demands.

In closing arguments, Lennox addressed his client asking if he would ever truly give up on Bronson. Soto responded no. Lennox said that Soto believed in faith and that Bronson, or anyone for that matter, could be redeemed.

"It's not over in the sense of community," said Sarber. "This was a devastating case for the community and it begins that healing process...once he's sentenced, we can move forward."

Soto will be sentenced at the end of September. The prosecution has indicated it will ask for jail time.

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