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."