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Basketball coach pleads guilty in car theft ring

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The women's basketball coach at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas, who once coached at Southeast Missouri State University, pleaded guilty to being part of a car theft ring that prosecutors said staged accidents and filed false theft reports to pocket insurance money.

William J. Smith, of Highland, Kan., pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in St. Louis to one count of conspiracy and five counts of mail fraud. He was one of 21 people charged in a scheme to steal luxury motor vehicles from individuals and dealerships in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.

The counts he pleaded to Tuesday involved obtaining fraudulent transfer titles from the Osage Nation for five vehicles in 2011 and 2012, which allowed the vehicles to be resold. Counts of mail fraud and receiving stolen vehicles were dropped, The St. Joseph News-Press reported (http://bit.ly/1pK3O4m ).

Prosecutors said the ring also obtained some vehicles when purchasers made false statements on loan applications and submitted fraudulent earnings statements to receive vehicle loans. The defendants used and then sold or disposed of the vehicles while the loan defaulted.

Smith, who will be sentenced July 1, apologized in a statement.

"Unfortunately, I allowed myself to be in business peripherally with a person who was involved in a car theft ring," the statement said. "I have cooperated with the government in this process to bring these people to justice, however, due to my transactions with this person I feel this is the best way for me to put this situation behind me and move forward with my career. I apologize for the negative publicity this has brought, I am embarrassed that I let this happen."

Smith has coached Highland for three years and his team finished second this year in the National Junior College Athletic Association's Division II championship game, ending a 33-3 season. His overall record at HCC is 85-13.

He coached at Southeast Missouri State four seasons and led the Lady Redhawks to their first NCAA tournament. Smith resigned in 2006 after he was placed on paid administrative leave for personal reasons. There was also an NCAA investigation into the women's basketball program.

Highland president Dave Reist said Wednesday the school's attorney will consult with the Board of Trustees to decide on Smith's future. He said he hoped the decision will be made sometime early next week.

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Information from: St. Joseph News-Press/St. Joe, Missouri, http://www.newspressnow.com