One day following his 20-count indictment, embattled businessman Tom Petters appeared briefly in U.S. District Court in St. Paul Tuesday where a not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf to fraud and conspiracy charges connected to a sprawling investment scheme the allegedly cost investors more than $3.5 billion.

The 51-year-old Wayzata resident wore a dress shirt and dark slacks, which made him stand out among the group of mostly T-shirt and sweatshirt-clad defendants who were making their first appearances in the packed courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.

Defense attorney Jon Hopeman entered the not-guilty plea for Petters; Boylan then set a tentative trial date for Feb. 9. The hearing lasted less than 5 minutes.

Hopeman said after the hearing that the trial date seemed unrealistic given the amount of work that remains to be done to prepare for trial. Hopeman only this week got access to the evidence gathered by federal authorities in a September raid on the personal and business interests of Petters and several of his business associates.

"It won't be tried in February," Hopeman told reporters outside the courtroom. "I don't know how much work I have to do. I think a lot."

A grand jury handed up the indictment on Monday charging Petters with 20 counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and money laundering. The indictment also charged Petters Group Worldwide, his holding company, and Petters Co. Inc., a financing entity, with all but eight money laundering charges.

Petters, the owner of Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid as well as a chain of discount merchandise stores bearing his name, has remained jailed without bond since his arrest Oct. 3. Prosecutors have said he could face life in prison if convicted. Hopeman says Petters intends to vigorously fight the charges.

Four defendants identified in the indictment as coconspirators, including Deanna Coleman, a former top executive with the Petters companies who tipped authorities to the alleged fraud in early September, already have pleaded guilty to related charges in the case.

The Petters case was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle, but it could be reassigned to Judge Paul Magnuson because he has overseen the pleas of the other defendants.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269