By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A former bottling company accountant who hid in plain sight as a hiker on the Appalachian Trail was sentenced to eight years in prison in a U.S. federal court in Cincinnati on Wednesday for wire fraud as part of an $8.7 million embezzling scheme, prosecutors said.

James Hammes was also sentenced to three years of supervised release after he gets out of prison and agreed to pay nearly $7.7 million in restitution, prosecutors said. Hammes was 53 when he pleaded guilty to wire fraud last October in U.S. District Court.

"Hammes embezzled a lot of money over a long period of time,” acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman said in a statement. “Hammes followed up his crime by coldly abandoning his family without explanation or warning and running from the law for six years under someone else's name.”


Hammes' attorney, Zenaida Renee Lockard, could not immediately be reached to comment.

Hammes, now 54, fled in February 2009 after Federal Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed him about the fraud.

Lockard had sought a maximum three-year sentence, previously citing Hammes' "spiritual journey" while hiking, but prosecutors requested just short of eight years. Chief Judge Susan Dlott had previously said she was considering a longer sentence given the fraud and his flight.

Hammes, a former resident of Lexington, Kentucky, spent the majority of his six years as a fugitive hiking the Appalachian Trail and living under an alias, prosecutors said.

Hammes had been well-known along the 2,190 mile (3,524 km) Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, in his years as a fugitive, frequenting bed and breakfasts and other facilities, the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper reported.

Hikers knew him by the trail name "Bismarck" until his arrest by federal agents at an inn along the trail in Damascus, Virginia, the newspaper said.

Hammes was accused of embezzling about $8.7 million from G&J Pepsi-Cola bottlers from 1998 to 2009. He had been called to company headquarters in Cincinnati where he was asked about the missing money before he disappeared.

Under his sentencing, Hammes agreed to pay about $6.7 million to G&J, where he was controller, and $1 million to Cincinnati Insurance Co, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Hammes paid company money into an unauthorized vender account and then transferred it to personal bank and brokerage accounts.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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