Judge calls plea ‘fairly favorable outcome’ as Lawrence agrees to 24 months probation plus $43,232 in restitution

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Attorney Jeff Page, left, and Mark Lawrence listen to Judge Charles H.W. Burch during a plea hearing Wednesday afternoon in Adams County Circuit Court. | Pool photo by David Adam

QUINCY — The trepidation was noticeable in Judge Charles H.W. Burch’s voice as he listened Wednesday afternoon in Adams County Circuit Court to the details in a negotiated plea for Mark Lawrence.

Lawrence, 65, who with his wife Chris founded the 2X4’s for Hope charity, agreed to an Alford plea on one count of theft of more than $10,000 but less than $100,000. By entering an Alford plea, Lawrence would have maintained his innocence but agreed the state had enough evidence to prove him guilty. Lawrence was sentenced to 24 months of second-chance probation and must pay $43,232.49 in restitution.

One count of theft of more than $100,000 but less than $500,000 was dismissed as part of the plea negotiations.

Burch agreed with the negotiation but expressed his initial reluctance because of the absence of time spent in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Lawrence could have received up to seven years in prison for his crime. Burch called the negotiation a “fairly favorable outcome” for Lawrence.

“The thought that runs through my mind is that there are individuals, in my 10 years on the bench, I have encountered and dealt with who are serving lengthy Department of Corrections sentences for stealing or using or taking property that was not theirs, using it for their own purpose, that is far less than the value of the property in this instance (than what is) represented by the restitution that you’re going to owe,” Burch said.

“I did have some pause to doing this whenever this was first presented to me.”

Lawrence’s history of serving veterans organizations and lack of prior criminal history were factored into Assistant State’s Attorney Todd Eyler’s decision to agree to the plea. However, he said a bigger factor was the 2×4 for Hope organization’s wishes to get back to helping veterans. 

“This has been a trying time for the board, specifically the individual board members and all the drug-out ongoing litigation,” Eyler said during the hearing. “I do not think it is in their or the entity’s best interest (to continue legal procedures). They have reached out to other organizations to assist them and help carry on and continue with their efforts. They just need to be able to move on. That is more of a consideration than any of the, I’ll say, positives, on the side of the fence for Mr. Lawrence.”

From left, Adams County Assistant State’s Attorney Todd Eyler, attorney Jeff Page and Mark Lawrence. | Pool photo by David Adam

Lawrence was accused of taking construction equipment donated to the tiny home building charity and selling it for personal gain, as well as stealing the charity’s funds. The organization’s board voted in November 2021 to remove Mark Lawrence as president and Chris Lawrence as treasurer. 

Adams County State’s Attorney Gary Farha previously said he learned about the situation when tools donated to 2×4s for Hope by Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation — a Brookfield, Wis., company which develops, manufactures and markets power tools — began appearing at Jacksonville and Galesburg Warehouse Bargains stores. The tools were meant for use in the construction of houses for veterans.

An Illinois State Police investigation discovered Warehouse Bargains did not make out checks to 2x4s for Hope but to Mark Lawrence, who allegedly did not transfer the funds into the 2x4s for Hope accounts. Farha also said 2x4s for Hope allegedly wrote multiple checks for tens of thousands of dollars to Lawrence Construction, a business owned by Mark Lawrence that ceased operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eyler explained his decision to dismiss the count of theft of more than $100,000, saying, “There was a lot of other money that was spent but there’s no doubt that the defense would present evidence that (Lawrence) did not use, receive or benefit from that as a large amount of monies. I’m confident his defense would be that he paid his employees to perform certain work on a certain 2×4 for Hope projects.

“The problem as I see it is there was no board approval for that. At the same time, the waters get muddied enough that it may or may not be an issue for a jury, and it may or may not cause problems for us at trial. Point blank, there was no board authority. It was improper. But I acknowledge the defense that can be presented.”

After the hearing, Eyler said he typically doesn’t like agreeing to Alford pleas.

“Somebody still gets to walk out of here with the mindset of, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’” Eyler said. “But the reality is the Alford plea is a tool and allows us to get to point B. In certain cases, I’m OK with it. This is one. I’m OK with it so this board can move on and do the work they’ve been dedicated for years to do to help the people who need the help.”

Eyler said Lawrence has until his 24 months of probation are complete to pay restitution. Lawrence could keep this felony conviction off his record if he completes the terms of his probation.

Asked if he thought Burch’s reaction was fair, Eyler replied, “Absolutely. He was hesitant, and I think it was obvious that at first he didn’t think it was a heavy enough sentence. I wish we had that reaction from more judges, especially in this county, because if we did, defendants would think twice about what they do. They would think twice about some of the plea offers that they refuse.”

“The board of directors for 2×4’s for Hope is really appreciative of the efforts of the Illinois State Police and Todd Eyler in the state’s attorney’s office to bring some closure to this very sad time of our organization,” Kevin Murphy, board president, said after the hearing.

Mark Lawrence walks out of an Adams County courtroom Wednesday afternoon with attorney Jeff Page. | Pool photo by David Adam

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