With more than a dozen of his victims looking on, financial adviser and attorney Mark Holt was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in prison for stealing more than $4 million from his mostly retired clientele.

"You are pond scum," one older woman hissed as Holt left the courtroom after receiving his sentence from U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson.

Holt, 44, dabbed his eyes and choked up as he briefly addressed the judge and said: "The financial and emotional harm I've done, I regret that."

Dressed in light slacks, a sports coat and a white golf shirt, Holt, of Vadnais Heights, stood motionless with his back to his victims as Nelson gave her reasoning for the stiff sentence and ordered restitution of $2.9 million.

"You not only took away their means to pay for their retirement but also their fundamental trust in human nature," Nelson said of Holt's victims.

Holt's attorney, Paul Applebaum, had argued for a lighter sentence, noting that Holt has been burdened with more than 30 years of alcohol and substance abuse and could not work to earn money to repay his clients if he was in prison for a long time.

"What happened to the victims is a tragedy that is unspeakable. But a lesser tragedy is Mr. Holt's life," Applebaum told the court. "I've watched Mark struggle for decades, but I did not see this coming at all. I've seen him treat people with respect. Outside the dark side — the Hyde side — is a wonderful human being."

According to the wire fraud charge to which Holt pleaded guilty in April, his scheme to defraud clients began in 2005 when he started diverting their funds into bank accounts that he controlled so he could spend the money on himself.

Holt hid his activities from clients by sending "portfolio fact sheets" to them that appeared genuine but contained false entries to make it appear the investments were sound. He later used a website in the same manner.

Holt also made occasional "lulling payments" to clients, which gave the appearance of earned interest or scheduled annuity payments, to keep his Ponzi scheme alive.

Meanwhile, according to federal and state authorities, Holt used his clients' funds for personal expenses, including a membership at the White Bear Lake Yacht Club, luxury cars, cross-country travel with stays at a Ritz Carlton hotel, meals at high-end restaurants, horse boarding and exotic dancers.

But the scheme unraveled in the fall of 2013 when the daughter of one of Holt's client/victims noticed discrepancies in money transfers in her mother's bank account and contacted officials.

"This crime is the result of choices Mark Holt made day after day. This defendant is a predator," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Svendsen before the sentence was handed down. "The defendant knew the financial situation of these victims. He knew it was basically all they had."

One of the victims, Mark Heymans of Minneapolis, said the losses caused by Holt affected his grandmother's estate, his parents, and himself and his spouse.

"I'd never felt so betrayed, our trust so violated as when the FBI showed up on our doorstep and told us we had lost a significant portion of our hard earned retirement," Heymans told Nelson, before directing his comments to Holt. "What you did shook us to the core. We won't have the future we planned, but you will not defeat us."

Applebaum noted that Holt, who has two driving while intoxicated citations and has struggled with addiction since he was 12, has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and staying sober. Applebaum also said it was inappropriate to cite Holt's misdemeanor driving convictions in considering his overall criminal history.

But the government rejected Applebaum's assertion.

"This is not an offense someone commits as a result of alcohol," said Svendsen, noting Holt's DWIs.

Nelson agreed. "I recognize a lifetime of substance abuse … but that's not what caused the crime. What caused the crime was pure unadulterated greed."

In addition to the $2.9 million in restitution that is part of Holt's criminal sentence, he was also fined $300,000 last month by the Minnesota Commerce Department for the same actions.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269