A Lakeville man who had been a major player among thieves stealing vehicles for scrap last year was sentenced Thursday to six months in the Ramsey County workhouse.

A jury took little time in March to convict Matthew Bruce Williams, 29, of stealing 14 vehicles that he later sold to a St. Paul scrap metal processor for $223 to $596 apiece.

Faced with a prosecutor's push for a 30-month prison sentence and a defense attorney's request for leniency, District Judge George Stephenson opted for the workhouse sentence to allow Williams to pay restitution to his victims.

The lighter sentence also acknowledged Williams' help in setting up the arrest last June of his co-defendant, Lionel Warner, 41, of St. Paul.

At the time of the thefts, Williams owned a tow truck, and was contacted by Warner about targeted vehicles, charges say. Williams paid Warner about $200 per vehicle and then whisked them away to the scrap metal processor. But the owners had not given Warner permission to have the vehicles towed.

The thefts occurred during a flurry of such activity in St. Paul, with more than 50 vehicles being reported stolen and then sold for scrap.

While the jury convicted Williams of theft, Stephenson told him Thursday that he did not believe he had approached each deal thinking, "I'm going to rip these poor folks off."

But, the judge said, he did believe Williams saw a chance to make a "fast buck" and elected not to ask Warner too many questions about the vehicles.

"You have a responsibility to not bury your head in the sand," Stephenson said.

According to a document filed by his attorneys, Williams had begun the process of repaying his victims by selling his tow truck and golf clubs. As of Tuesday, he had $8,000 set aside for restitution purposes, the attorneys wrote.

Total value of the vehicles stood at $32,937, with six vehicles yet to be accounted for, according to a list recited Thursday by Stephenson.

He ordered Williams to report to the workhouse in two weeks.

Warner is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 24. He faces as much as six months in the workhouse after agreeing to a plea deal that included testifying against Williams.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041