Sleep Number Founder Gets Early Release From Prison

By Jennifer Doherty
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Law360 (June 29, 2020, 8:56 PM EDT) -- The founder of the Sleep Number mattress company, who used another of his companies to swindle investors out of more than $57 million, will get out of federal prison 14 years ahead of schedule after a judge found him to be at particularly high risk for COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson of the District of Minnesota granted Robert Allen Walker's request for compassionate release Friday, concurring with Walker's arguments that his age and multiple serious ailments, combined with the active COVID-19 outbreak at the Federal Medical Center penitentiary in Lexington, Kentucky, supported his claim that he was in serious danger.

"While the length of time remaining on his sentence is significant, the court agrees with numerous district courts that have found similar circumstances to justify compassionate release — while fully acknowledging the seriousness of the offense — when an inmate like Mr. Walker presents with significant vulnerability and low-risk of reoffending," Judge Nelson wrote in Walker's release order.

Prosecutors actively opposed Walker's petition for relief, dubbing him a "severe economic damage danger to the community" who wouldn't hesitate to con again.

In 2014, Walker was convicted of wire fraud, witness tampering and tax evasion stemming from charges that he separated investors from their money by misrepresenting the progress Bixby Energy Systems Inc. had made with its coal gasification technology, leading his victims to believe that an initial public offering was imminent.

Walker, who is 77 years old, suffers from atrial fibrillation, "a confirmed risk factor for severe illness should he contract the virus," as Judge Nelson put it, and Stage 3 chronic kidney disease, which also predisposes him to be "severely impacted by COVID-19."

"Moreover, because Mr. Walker donated a kidney to his son and only has one remaining, the court agrees with his assertion that the virus could be 'especially devastating' for him," the judge wrote.

Judge Nelson rejected the government's argument that FMC-Lexington was a safe environment for Walker thanks to the staff's adherence to Bureau of Prisons health and safety protocols, writing that "this assertion appears to ignore the reality of the situation at the facility."

At least 78 inmates at the facility tested positive for COVID-19 in June alone, Judge Nelson wrote, and a total of six have died from the disease since the outbreak first began, the seventh highest number of inmate fatalities across 72 Bureau of Prisons' facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, FMC-Lexington had 11 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday.

Judge Nelson also brushed aside the government's argument that Walker is likely to reoffend, writing that there was no evidence he was still in touch with any of the people who facilitated his past crimes.

Following Judge Nelson's order, Walker will be released early in July and begin home confinement at the house of his daughter, Melanie Lynn Bonine.

In 2014, Judge Nelson sentenced Bonine to three years in prison for tax evasion related to profits she made selling shares in Bixby, according to the FBI.

Attorneys for Walker and the government did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

The government is represented by David J. MacLaughlin of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota.

Robert Allen Walker is represented by Andrew H. Mohring of the Office of the Federal Defender.

The case is U.S. v. Robert Allen Walker, case number 0:11-cr-00381, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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