“I THINK WE ALL have a little greed in our heart.”
John Turnquist, a silver-haired, 72-year-old grandfather, is having a cup of coffee in the kitchen of his floating house on the Columbia River. This is his explanation for why, one day back in 1999, he sat down, made a check out to the First International Bank of Grenada, and then mailed it to an address on the Caribbean island of Antigua. He figured he was about to hit payola. He’d just received $10,000 from his mother’s estate, and, as anyone might, he wanted to parlay this minor windfall into an interest-bearing investment. A friend told him about a great opportunity, a newly formed offshore bank that promised staggering annual returns of 20 percent or more, guaranteed. Any of Turnquist’s doubts might have waned when he saw the prospectus from the bank, which was based in the Grenadian capital of St. George’s. The glossy 28-page brochure featured paradisiacal pictures of cerulean waters and beaches lined with palm trees, each image punctuated by an inspirational quote: Realize your hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Offshore investing: legal, safe, simple, and wise.
“It was very professional-looking,” he says. But what clinched it for him was a second pamphlet from the International Deposit Indemnity Corporation, or IDIC, a multibillion-dollar, multinational insurance corporation, which guaranteed that both Turnquist’s investment and any interest it earned were safe.
A few weeks after he mailed in his check, Turnquist received a certificate of deposit signed by the bank’s CFO, Rita Regale. Not only did he not receive any returns, but he never saw a penny of his $10,000 again.
But Turnquist was one of the luckier ones. One local man invested his mother’s entire pension fund—$15,000. Turnquist mentioned the deal to a golf buddy—who then lost nearly $100,000. A Portland salesman who’d hoped to retire on the interest he earned on his $200,000 investment lost everything; at 68, he’s trying to start a new career as a website designer.
All of them were victims of what became the largest financial fraud case ever prosecuted in Oregon, a shell game so complex that it took the US Attorney’s Office in Portland nearly nine years to unravel the morass of money-laundering schemes, illegal banks, sub-banks, fake investment companies, and nonexistent investment funds that eventually bilked some 4,000 people in at least eight countries out of at least $170 million—and probably millions more.
In August of last year, federal prosecutors finally put away four of the scam’s ringleaders. All are now serving sentences in federal prison. But even they claim to be victims, duped by a Hillsboro man named Gilbert Ziegler, aka Van Brink, who proved to be one of the greediest, and best, con men in Oregon’s history.
In March 1998, a securities investigator for the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services named Bill Karalekas slipped to the back of a rented conference room in a Lake Oswego condominium complex to watch a presentation about an offshore investment fund called Private Legacy Trust. A week earlier, a pastor at a small Tigard church had called Karalekas’s offices with a complaint: Some of his parishioners had invested with Fidelity International Bank, located on the island of Nauru, but the interest on their money never materialized. Karalekas’s staff called the Office of the Comptroller of Currency on Nauru, which said that the bank had no authority to conduct offshore banking business there.
Packed into the room were some 80 people, Karalekas recalls, many around retirement age and all of them atwitter with excitement. Word about Gilbert Ziegler’s incredible investment had already gotten around, and the buzz in the room was palpable. They sat in small groups, whispering to each other and flipping through the fund’s dazzling prospectuses and brochures.