Alleged Ponzi Scheme Defrauds Residents of Wilton Station
From lavish cocktail parties to millions of dollars missing, several dozen people may have been ripped off
Call him Monroe.
He was sitting at a bar last October, sipping his usual vodka cocktail when a friend approached him and told him that their mutual acquaintance, George Elia, was under investigation for fraud. Monroe, and his friend, had both invested large sums of money with Elia.
"We've been trying to get money [back from] him, but he's not returning our calls," the friend stated. Monroe couldn't believe it at the time and his mind started to race. "There's a certain disbelief," he said. "Then you think, 'Oh my god, what if it's true?'" As the potential ominous reality set in, he broke down crying.
Over a period of years, Monroe had invested $125,000 with Elia. He never had any reason to suspect the statements he received -- showing hefty returns -- were fraudulent. He even rolled over his 401k, which was one of Elia's ideas.
As Monroe sat at the bar, his friend ordered him a martini, perhaps to console him over their mutual loss. It was then he began to grasp the breadth of his misfortune. They would both later find out that they were not the only ones duped - indeed, they were the tip of the iceberg.
Monroe is part of a group of 13 people, who have banded together to try to get their money back from Elia- claiming close to an astonishing $8 million worth of losses. They've hired the prominent South Florida law firm of Becker and Poliakoff to represent them, the same legal team who once handled cases for victims of Bernie Madoff.
An SFGN investigation has revealed that a local businessman, Jim Ellis, using venues in Wilton Manors, courted investors for Elia's alleged scheme. Ellis is now the source of multiple complaints himself, and has been accused of making the introductions that led to the subsequent failed investments. However, Ellis also claims to be a victim himself.
The day after Monroe's friend alerted him of possible wrongdoing back in October, Monroe said he called Elia, who didn't answer, and then didn't call back. This was unusual, Monroe said, as Elia had always returned calls quickly. He waited a few hours and called Jim Ellis, the man who first introduced him to Elia.
"I said to [Jim Ellis], 'Someone indicated to me they're having trouble getting money out of George,'" Monroe said, noting that Ellis said he knew who he was talking about, and said it was no big deal. Ellis reassured him and told him that it was all getting blown out of proportion. "[Elia] is just a little behind," he explained.
Minutes later Elia finally called him back.
"'What's the matter?' he asked me," Monroe said. So Monroe told him that he needed $35,000 back immediately because his son needed help with a deposit to secure a house. Monroe even promised he'd give it back to Elia as soon as his son paid up. Elia's response: the once always seemingly upfront investor told him he "needed time" and added that he "wasn't a bank."
A week later, on Oct. 21, Elia came to Monroe's house with a $15,000 cashier's check.
"That's the last I saw him until his deposition," Monroe said. Monroe attended Elia's Nov. 21, 2011 deposition and said Elia didn't speak much more than his name, before pleading the Fifth Amendment, and shutting up. According to court records, during the deposition, Elia answered 114 consecutive questions by pleading the Fifth.
The civil deposition came from the law firm Sallah and Cox, who is representing the Imbesis family, Californians who are also alleged victims of Elia's, and whose suit against him seeks more than $4 million in damages.
Daniel DeSouza, attorney for 13 other alleged victims, including those interviewed by SFGN, said many of them live in Wilton Station. DeSouza said a lawsuit by his firm has not been filed- yet.
"We're just now getting into the big things and figuring out the individual clients' stories," he said. "At this point, for what it's worth, there's not much to fill in."
OTHER POTENTIAL VICTIMS
Jonathan Gonzalez and Linda Accetta of Fort Lauderdale, who also invested with Elia, will be additional co-plaintiffs in the upcoming lawsuit against Elia. The couple, together for 16 years, lives in a comfortable house, with a pool in the back. Their house is immaculate. Perhaps that's because when Accetta is upset or stressed, she cleans to calm down. And she has had plenty of reasons to be upset over the last several months, claiming a loss of $73,000.
She supports an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old in college. But it's Elia who now has her kids' college funds.
Then there's a Wilton Station resident, Jefferson (not his real name) who invested upwards of $100,000 with Elia. When he first considered investing he did his due diligence - or so he thought - and ran a $39.95 criminal check on him online. It came back clean, he told SFGN. Even so Jefferson still had reservations, and didn't immediately invest.
"They kept working on me and on other people," he said. "I finally decided to try it - a small amount." That small amount was $20,000, and it was only the beginning.
Jefferson, who also expects to sue Elia, would get regular statements and "never had an inkling that there were any issues. "Whenever he wanted a portion of his investments back, he said, he'd call Elia and receive his funds within a day. "I was so happy, I put more money in."
SFGN could not reach Elia for comment. Two numbers provided by sources for him had been disconnected as of Feb. 26. But one of the victims, Linda Accetta, had much to say about Jim Ellis.
"[Ellis] would wear very nice jeans, colorful silk shirts and keep himself looking good," she said. Monroe added: "Jim Ellis was selling a lifestyle - and I wanted that lifestyle."
Ellis sported a Rolex and drove a BMW, other sources say, and lived a lavish lifestyle.
"[George] Elia would wear white shirts, dress pants, and a Rolex on his arm," Accetta said about the man she would meet through Ellis one day, adding that he had a Super Bowl ring on his finger, and was a "perfect gentleman."
Monroe met Ellis and his daughter, Janet Ellis, in January 2009 over Bloody Marys to discuss the possibility of their investing. He and his partner quickly became friendly with Ellis.
"We started meeting up with Jim at Scandals and at other bars, like Alibi, just for drinks. Jim Ellis was always the one who would buy you drinks, take you out for dinner," Monroe said. "It's not uncommon for Jim to take twenty people out to dinner," he added, recounting an incident in which Ellis took 20 people out to Jaxson's for his daughter's birthday.
Monroe also said that Jim Ellis would "hang out at the gay bars - would meet guys, [and] get to know them. Once he realized they had money, he would work them. He would wine them and dine them."
Monroe claims Jim Ellis was Elia's "salesman."
As Ellis was spending more and more time with Monroe and his partner, he started telling them about his investor, Elia, and how Elia was making him $23,000 a month. Monroe said that Ellis told them he'd given Elia a $5 million inheritance he'd recently gotten from his father's passing and was living off the interest he was receiving.
"Every time we got together with Jim, he brought up the idea of having lunch with George," he said. "This lunch, that was free, would end up costing us $10,000."
Ellis wasn't only charming Monroe, though. He was a regular at his daughter parties in Wilton Station and the area. Janet held these parties as part of her job, a job she incidentally got through Linda Accetta.
"My family works for Continental Management Company," Accetta said about the company who manages the Wilton Station property, among others. "Jim asked if we could get his daughter a job - so we did." Janet was first working at a property in Palm Beach County, but was soon transferred to Wilton Station.
As of yet, Janet could not be reached for comment by SFGN. A number provided by a source for her had been disconnected as of Feb. 26.
Janet would have parties like these at local bars on Wednesdays, according to Jefferson. The purpose of the parties was to invigorate social camaraderie and act as an icebreaker for the community, Jefferson said. Janet's father, Jim, was a staple at these parties, which Jefferson remembered thinking was a little "weird" but not alarming.
"He was friendly with everybody. One of the things these two always did was be very good about asking about how your family's doing, how your kids are, how your day went - they were very slick," Jefferson said. "[Ellis] was almost like a father figure, he was believable - I never picked him out to be a crook. I really didn't."
Apparently no one else did, either.
"Jim will take you out to a $500 lunch at Capital Grille, and pay for it with your own money," Jonathan Gonzalez said. "Ellis had once recognized a client of mine and kept pressuring me, 'Can you hook me up with her? Can you hook me up with her?'" But the signs weren't apparent enough -- not until people started asking for their money back," he adds.
SFGN attempted to interview Jim Ellis, but he had only one thing to say before abruptly hanging up: "I have no involvement with [Elia] except for the fact that he stole my money." Indeed, Ellis claims he too is one of Elia's victims, having also fallen prey to the alleged schemer's fraudulent activities.
But Jonathan Gonzalez, Accetta's boyfriend, isn't buying it.
"I think George took the lion's share, but Ellis must have been making money," he said. Gonzalez added that Ellis offered him a percentage if he could bring new investors into the ring. "[Ellis] is claiming he's going into foreclosure, which must be a lie." SFGN tried to give Ellis an opportunity to defend himself and deny any accusations made against him, but he refused.
Around September of last year, in a similar case to Monroe, a chance meeting with a friend at a bar alerted Jefferson to Elia's alleged misconduct.
The next day, Jefferson called Elia and asked for $30,000 of his money back. Elia said he couldn't give him that much so quickly. He asked for at least 10 days, but Jefferson was adamant in sticking to his request. They negotiated and compromised on five days. Those five days came and went, with no money and no correspondence from Elia. Indeed, he wasn't the only one and Jefferson said he knew of other people who couldn't reach him as well.
"I was calling everybody - I was out of my mind," Jefferson said.
Not everyone fell for the scam. One Wilton Station resident, Washington (not his real name) refused a buy-in.
"[Janet] introduces her dad [Jim Ellis] to you at these parties," he said. "Then he invites you to lunch and talks about his investor." But Washington wasn't comfortable with the presentation, and declined further participation after discovering that George Elia was not registered with the SEC.
"I just smelled something - I just couldn't trust him," Washington said, adding his theory about how the whole scheme worked. "I think that [George Elia] takes the money, [Jim Ellis] gets you to give the money, and Janet is the one who gets you to meet her father."
As the story unfolds, the handwriting on the wall seems to be growing increasingly evident. The alleged victims want revenge - not only do they want their money back, they want to ensure no one else falls victim to the alleged scam-artist. Some people believe Ellis might have been a 'shill' for Elia.
"We trusted [Ellis]. That was our downfall. He made everyone we've met so far do the same thing," said Jonathan Gonzalez. Later, Accetta would add: "All of [Elia's] closest friends end up being victims. Wherever George goes, there'll be more victims - someone has to stop him."
"The emotional stress, looking around to find other victims, I don't even want to deal with it anymore," Gonzalez said. "It was like that for months."
Monroe had planned on retiring in the next few years - but that hope is now gone.
"I haven't been the greatest at saving money. I thought this would be an easy fix," he said. "I looked at Mr. Ellis' lifestyle and thought that's what I want. I figured if I gave [Elia] my money, I'd have enough to live on. If it's too good to be true, it probably is - it just wasn't true."
The scariest part of the ordeal for him in hindsight, Monroe said, is when he started pushing people he knew to invest with Elia. He wanted to spread the wealth, not knowing he'd just be spreading agony, despair, and deceit.
"Thankfully, only one person I ever talked to went to Capital Grille and had lunch with [Elia]," he said. "But they ended up not investing - I'm so thankful."
A lot of people though are not so lucky.
If you have been approached by Jim Ellis, Janet Ellis and/or George Elia and want to share your story with SFGN, contact Gideon Grudo at 918.991.8481 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
At press time Tuesday, SFGN was contacted by yet an additional alleged victim, Sandra Rich, a 79-year-old tenant of Wilton Station. With her lawyer present, she claimed that she was defrauded out of her life savings of $30,000. She stated the FBI has interviewed her, but doesn't know the status of their investigation. However, she believes that both Ellis and Elia are responsible for her loss. She also said she gave her checks directly to Jim Ellis. She too has retained the law firm of Becker and Poliakoff to initiate a civil claim against the responsible parties. More on this story as it develops.