Utah judge overrides probation plea deal, sentences entrepreneur to prison
Aug 4, 2023, 8:51 PM | Updated: Aug 7, 2023, 6:25 am
This report is part of a series examining how apparent gaps at every level of Utah’s criminal justice system fail to protect Utahns.
PROVO, Utah – A “gifted swindler,” and “dangerous predator” – words women used to describe a Utah entrepreneur during his sentencing hearing Friday.
Former “Shark Tank” contestant Nathanael “Nate” Holzapfel, 44, was charged with scamming women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and sexually abusing some of his victims.
He showed up to his sentencing in Provo on Friday expecting to leave the courthouse a free man, after previously accepting a plea deal aimed at keeping him out of prison and off the sex offender registry.
That deal crumbled after the judge heard from women Holzapfel was charged with defrauding and sexually abusing, and in an unexpected turn of events, Holzapfel left the courtroom in handcuffs.
The plea deal
Walking into the Utah County Courthouse with his children by his side, Holzapfel told the KSL Investigators he had been advised by attorneys to not make any public statements.
He then proceeded to say, “Unfortunately, the way the system works is that you do get a little bit hung before you’re even tried. Innocent until proven guilty in America, in part, thanks to KSL.”
But Holzapfel pleaded guilty in June, admitting to devising schemes to defraud three women, and inappropriately touching three others. The plea agreement resolved eight pending cases against Holzapfel, with more than a dozen charges against him dismissed.
Felony forcible sexual abuse charges were reduced to misdemeanor sexual battery charges, of which he pleaded guilty to three counts – the maximum number of misdemeanor sexual battery charges a person can be convicted of in Utah without being required to register as a sex offender.
According to the plea agreement, Holzapfel agreed to pay some of the money back ($300,000) and spend four years on probation, receiving credit for 122 days already served in jail.
The deal also included a clause allowing Holzapfel to withdraw his guilty plea if the court rejected the sentence recommended in the plea agreement.
‘Please put a stop to this’
One after another, survivors in the case shared how Holzapfel’s crimes impacted them and asked the court to protect others.
One woman said she met Holzapfel at the most vulnerable time in her life, 13 months after her spouse of 27 years passed away.
“Nate, I trusted you while you were grooming me to take my money,” she said.
She described struggling emotionally and financially, working two jobs as Holzapfel profited from the partial life insurance settlement she received after her husband’s death.
“My life has forever been changed as a result of swiping right, matching with a married man on a dating website,” she said.
Another woman, Sammi Turnbow, identified herself as the first survivor of Holzapfel’s sexual crimes to come forward. She described an encounter in which she said Holzapfel pinned her against a truck and sexually assaulted her.
“During the assault, he said things like, ‘If I wanted to rape you, I would have done it already. Relax,’” said Turnbow.
“He also informed me that night that he had a team of attorneys working for him,” she said. “I was in terror for what seemed like an eternity, frozen, shocked, and terrified that it was happening and not knowing how to make it stop.”
Turnbow said she was not happy with the terms of the plea deal, but reluctantly agreed to it so the victims of Holzapfel’s financial crimes could recoup some of their money.
“I am disappointed that his threats were realized,” she said. “He does, in fact, have a team of attorneys who did exactly what he said they would do. He bought his way out.”
Through tears, a third woman, Courtney Morton, said the stories of the other women are all too familiar. She said she met Holzapfel within months of her father’s death.
“I was promised the world and was delivered a nightmare,” she said. “It’s all purposeful and I can see that now. Everything is plotted and planned down to the exact same things that he tells each of his victims.”
Morton said Holzapfel told her he loved her and wanted to marry her and start a new life. She said she has since lost her home, the vehicle that was outfitted for her son who requires a wheelchair, and she’s had to be in intensive therapy.
“He also told me that he could kill me and get away with it,” she said. “He is a predator. He preys upon the very most vulnerable in society. I implore you to please put a stop to this today.”
A prison sentence
One of Holzapfel’s defense attorneys, Nathan Crane, told the judge the plea deal was the result of months of negotiation and represents a fair resolution, and that his client has taken responsibility.
But Fourth District Judge Thomas Low voiced concern over Crane’s use of the term “tentative guilty plea,” and said the court never bound itself to the plea agreement.
“If the court’s indicating that it’s not going to follow the recommendation as presented, then Mr. Holzapfel has a right to withdraw his guilty pleas,” Crane said.
“He does not have the right to withdraw his guilty pleas,” Low said.
Crane then asked to withdraw as Holzapfel’s attorney, a request Low denied.
Given an opportunity to speak before sentencing, Holzapfel called some of the victims in the case “the nicest people in the whole darn world, just lovely, nice people,” and said he was sorry they were “drug into this.”
“I really do feel sorry for everybody who’s so upset over things. And I can understand why. There’s a lot going on here,” he said. “And it’s my sincerest concern about, about the issues, whatever, I want everyone to feel good.”
Judge Low then deviated from the plea agreement, sentencing Holzapfel to serve one to 15 years in the Utah State Prison in one of the felony fraud cases, and three concurrent sentences of 364 days for each of the sexual battery counts to which Holzapfel pleaded guilty.
“I understand that this negotiation was developed over a long period of time and that’s been made clear to the court,” Judge Low said. “But the treachery and the abuse that has occurred also occurred over a long period of time. The life-altering impacts you have had on these victims … are shocking.”
Courtroom bailiffs handcuffed Holzapfel and took him into custody immediately after the sentencing.
‘Money for justice’
Emails reviewed by the KSL Investigators reveal prosecutor Pete Reichman told Turnbow in August 2022 that his office believed Holzapfel needed to be a registered sex offender and could not accept a plea offer without that provision.
Turnbow said the ultimate agreement reached was disappointing, and she worries it doesn’t go far enough to protect the public.
“They accepted that deal,” she said of the Utah County Attorney’s Office. “He traded money for justice.”
Reichman said the deal his office settled on was the best they could get the defense to agree to while accomplishing several goals, including the restitution payments for some of the victims.
“Yeah, it was a good deal for him,” he said. “But there was a lot left on the table as far as potential consequences for him in the future. Sometimes, [we] have to play the long game.”
Reichman said they also had to balance their objectives with the risk of losing at trial.
While none of the women who spoke in court Friday were happy with the terms of the deal, they all agreed they wanted to put the case behind them.
“I am thrilled about the outcome today,” said Morton, following Holzapfel’s courtroom arrest.
Longtime defense attorney Greg Skordas said Judge Low’s decision is sure to be reviewed by a higher court. He said in this type of plea deal, a judge’s choice to sentence outside of the terms of the plea agreement would typically allow either party to withdraw their consent.
“They thought they had an agreement that said that. The judge didn’t think that he was bound by that agreement, and in fact, imposed a sentence greater than was contemplated in their agreement. And then said, ‘I’m not going to allow you to withdraw the plea.’ So, I assume the defense may very well appeal that decision,” said Skordas.
With Holzapfel now incarcerated, that appeal could happen soon, he said.
“You would expect that his lawyers would work very quickly and get an appeal filed and get something before the Court of Appeals as soon as possible,” he said. “They may also try to negotiate with the state and even with the judge at some point about some sort of compromise.”
Crane, Holzapfel’s attorney, was not available for comment following the hearing.
‘I’m finally free’
Turnbow said she felt she was treated like a number during the three-year court process and wanted to be seen in court Friday as a real person, deeply impacted by Holzapfel’s crimes.
She said despite asking multiple times, she was not provided a victim advocate and was consistently not notified about hearings in the case, including the hearing in which Holzapfel entered his guilty plea.
“If a victim has asked to be part of the court proceedings, and has asked to be notified of court proceedings, and they were not, then someone involved with the prosecution dropped the ball,” Skordas said. “I’m not saying that’s what happened here, but certainly victims have the right to be notified of all court proceedings in cases where they are the victim.”
Reichman said his office tries to send out email notifications to victims about hearings in the cases they’re involved in.
“If she didn’t get that, then I sincerely apologize,” he said. “That’s on me.”
Turnbow exited the courtroom with her hands in the air and a smile on her face, relieved after watching bailiffs take Holzapfel into custody.
“I spoke out today because I feel like there’s this culture of victim shaming,” she said. “And what I realized is, I don’t need to be embarrassed for that. I do not need to be embarrassed because that predator came and attacked me and assaulted me for nearly 45 minutes in a parking lot.”
While engaging in the justice process as a survivor was difficult, Turnbow encouraged others to come forward and report sexual crimes.
“Because I spoke out, because I shared my story and the details of that horrid assault, that man is now going to prison. And that was not the case this morning,” she said. “He’s in cuffs, and I am finally free.”
If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at email@example.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.