CHARLOTTE — John Knox Bridges fooled a lot of people over the years.
He fooled even more Friday when prosecutors, his own attorney and a federal court judge kept a frigid courthouse open with the expectation Bridges would be sentenced for running a $2.3 million Ponzi scheme.
He never showed. Police said Friday night he left his South Ellis Street home about 1 p.m. and hadn’t been seen since.
If caught, the gamble could cost the 52-year-old virtually the rest of his life in prison.
For 40 minutes, court officials and the near dozen in attendance — most who were victims — glanced impatiently at the swinging court doors and the clock ticked above them.
At 2:40 p.m., Chief Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. entered the second-floor courtroom and issued a warrant for Bridges’ arrest.
“I delayed coming in here for some time with the hope that Mr. Bridges would appear,” Conrad said.
Bridges’ attorney, Rahwa Gebre-Egziabher, sat alone at the defendant’s table and told the judge she couldn’t provide an excuse for Bridges’ whereabouts because of attorney-client privilege.
Gebre-Egziabher offered to tell the judge more in a private conference. Conrad said he didn’t see why that would be necessary.
U.S. Attorney Maria Vento declined to comment after the hearing.
Bridges pleaded guilty in February 2012 to money laundering and securities fraud. His victims included longtime family friends and the foundation that supports the N.C. Transportation Museum.
Several of Bridges’ victims had prepared to speak at the hearing, but they declined comment afterwards, citing the pending action.
It could be costly for Bridges if he’s caught.
A federal court official said after the hearing that once a suspect skips sentencing, prosecutors are no longer bound by the terms of a plea agreement.
Under the agreement with prosecutors, Bridges was expected to serve between 57 and 71 months in prison. Now he could face sentencing under the federal guidelines for his crimes — which carry a maximum of 30 years.
After the judge’s order for arrest, the FBI contacted Salisbury Police.
Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingle said officers searched Bridges’?South Ellis Street home, where he had been staying.
Lingle said the 52-year-old Bridges left his home about 1 p.m.
Investigators believe Bridges was last seen in his mother’s charcoal-gray Volvo V-70 station wagon.
A police dispatch said Bridges should be considered “armed and dangerous.”
Bridges also threatened to harm himself or law enforcement, according to scanner traffic.
Lingle said officers were asked to be cautious, citing a near-fatal incident between Bridges and police in August 2011.
At the time, Bridges threatened to kill himself and shot himself with a shotgun at close range after an officer used a stun gun to subdue him.
After he was released from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, Bridges was charged with bilking co-workers and longtime friends for millions.
The former Charlotte resident stole $600,000 from the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation while he served on the foundation’s board.
He was also accused of taking $600,000 from North Carolina fresco artist Ben Long.
As part of the now-defunct plea agreement, Bridges was to pay full restitution to his victims.
Sherry Austin, who between herself and a friend lost more than $400,000 in a loan to Bridges, said she didn’t expect to see any of the money again. Maybe now Bridges will serve longer, she said.
“Even if he were out, he wouldn’t be able to repay it, much less in prison,” Austin wrote in an e-mail Friday night. The weather kept her from attending the proceedings.
Austin said Bridges is often depicted as a swashbuckling smooth-talker. But his process was much more humble, she said.
“It was his gift at getting people and whole organizations to want to help him. He knew how to worm his way into people’s lives, their families. He was patient. He took years to do it,” Austin wrote. “He made good people pity him, to want to help him, to trust him, and many of the fortunes lost came not from people wanting to enrich themselves but to help him and the charities he represented.”
Salisbury Police said Bridges may still be in the area and ask anyone with information about his whereabouts to contact authorities at 704-638-5333 or Crime Stoppers at 1-866-639-5245.