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January 8, 2014

Missing banker pleads not guilty

STATESBORO — A former Georgia banker accused of stealing millions from investors before vanishing for 18 months pleaded not guilty Wednesday to federal bank fraud charges and agreed to remain jailed without bond pending trial.

Aubrey Lee Price, 47, didn't speak as he sat hunched between his court-appointed lawyer and an attorney who's a family friend and has agreed to assist with his case for free. Though prosecutors say he misspent, embezzled and lost $21 million, Price was able to show the court that he doesn't have enough money to hire a lawyer, said U.S. Magistrate Judge G.R. Smith.

Authorities say Price faked financial records in an attempt to cover his tracks before he disappeared in June 2012. He sent letters to his family and acquaintances saying he was "incapable of continuing in this life" and other strong hints that he planned to commit suicide. A Florida judge declared Price dead a year ago. Meanwhile, the Montgomery Bank & Trust, a rural bank near Vidalia at which Price served as a director since 2010, closed because its assets and reserves were depleted.

Attorney Duston Tapley Jr., a longtime friend of Price's family, said after the hearing in Statesboro that he'd always known Price to be a hard worker and a "good guy growing up."

"The facts of this case are going to be different than the facts in the papers, and in Mr. Price's favor," said Tapley, who has asked to assist with Price's case. His lead attorney, Joshua Lowther, left court without commenting.

Price appeared in court still wearing the dark, shoulder length hair and beard he had on New Year's Eve when a sheriff's deputy on Interstate 95 near Brunswick pulled over his truck because he thought its tinted windows were too dark. Price had short, blondish hair and was clean shaven when he vanished a year and a half ago.

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