Former Stanford sailing coach avoids prison in first sentence of college admissions scandal

Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer arrives at Boston Federal Court for an arraignment on March 12, 2019, in Boston. John Vandemoer is among several charged in alleged college admissions scam. (Photo: SCOTT EISEN, Getty Images)

BOSTON – Former Stanford University head sailing coach John Vandemoer was sentenced Wednesday to home supervision – not prison – for his actions in the nation’s college admissions scheme, delivering a blow to prosecutors who had sought to send a message to other defendants in the high-profile case.

A federal judge gave Vandemoer two years of supervised release, including the first six months confined to his home, and a $10,000 fine in the first sentencing of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions case. 

He received a prison term of just one day, but it was deemed already served.

Vandemoer, 42, pleaded guilty in March to accepting $610,000 in bribes to benefit Stanford’s sailing program in exchange for designating college applicants as sailing recruits to get them accepted into the prestigious university. 

Federal Judge Rya Zobel said it’s important that Vandemoer be punished “because it’s too easy to do this kind of thing” but she didn’t think prison time was warranted. Vandemoer funneled payments to Stanford’s sailing program, not his personal use, and none of the students tied to his payments attended Stanford as a direct result of his actions.

Vandemoer is the first of the 22 defendants who pleaded guilty in the nation’s sweeping college admissions scandal to be sentenced. 

Prosecutors sought 13 months of prison for Vandemoer. His defense sought no incarceration and probation instead.


Prosecutors argued that Vandemoer’s sentence should set an example, calling a prison term “the only way to deter similarly situated individuals” who are “entrusted with the power to shape figures.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen told the judge a prison sentence for Vandemoer “will set the tone for this case going forward” and “send a powerful message” that if a person takes bribes for college admissions, he or she will be criminally prosecuted and go to jail.

He said the sentence should signal to “honest and hardworking high school students” who are trying to get into college the right way that the wealthy can’t pay bribes to undermine the system. “These kids deserve that. Our society needs that.”

If Vandemoder got off with no prison term, Rosen said, it would be “shortchanging not only the criminal justice system but all those kids in schooling trying to get in by hard work.”

“The danger in this case and others is not an over-sentence but failing to send a message,” he said.

But Vandemoer’s defense, led by attorney Robert Fisher, argued that he did not personally profit from the scheme “though he easily could have” and should receive only probation. 

“No student slots were taken by underqualified students or applicants,” Fisher said, calling Vandamoer a “gentleman whose heart is in the right place.”

Fisher highlighted letters from some of Vandemoer’s former sailing players and others – 27 in all – lauding his character. His wife wrote how he has sought to rebuild his life. Vandemoer is married with two children under 2 years old. 

Fisher said that of all the 50 defendants in the college admissions case, “everyone but Mr. Vandemoer gained something. He got nothing. He gave every single dime to sailing, to Stanford. He could have pocketed that. He didn’t.”  

“Jail isn’t going to do anything other than punish his family. He gave everything to those kids on that sailing team,” Fisher said, adding that he’s lost his job, his housing and health insurance. 

“Mr. Vandemoer failed in one instance to live up to the high expectations he sets for himself,” the defense argued in a memo before his sentencing. “He fully accepts responsibility for his mistake. Mr. Vandemoer is determined to make amends for this mistake, move on with his life and continue to provide for his family.”

On March 12, Vandemoer admitted designating a female applicant from China as a sailing recruit in early 2016 after the scheme’s mastermind, Rick Singer, promised that the student’s family would “endow” sailing coach salaries. Singer, who funneled payments from parents to carry out his scheme, created a fake sailing profile for the student, but it was too late in the recruitment process, and the student was accepted through the normal admissions process.

Prosecutors say Singer paid Vandemoer’s sailing program $500,000 for his efforts anyway and for “recruiting” future clients.

The initial student has since been revealed as Yusi Zhao from China, whose mother paid $6.5 million to Singer’s nonprofit The Key Worldwide Foundation in what prosecutors say was the largest single transaction in the entire scheme. Zhao is no longer at Stanford.

The next sentencing in the college admissions case, set for June 20, will be former Yale University women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, who has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and mail fraud charges.

Follow Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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