Scam bilked Calif. seniors out of $190M

February 22, 2008 5:23:59 AM PST
William Miller dreamed of traveling to Italy with his wife and fixing up their modest house with the money he saved while working for 36 years for Chevron Corp. Instead, he lost $450,000 - half his retirement nest egg - after investing with a company that authorities later said netted more than $190 million in a huge Ponzi scheme targeting seniors.

"I can't do what I wanted to," said Miller, now 88, widowed and fighting Parkinson's disease. "I realize that I just can't trust anyone anymore."

Three people at Daniel W. Heath & Associates, which had offices across Southern California, were convicted last month of charges including grand theft, selling false securities and theft from the elderly.

Company president Daniel W. Heath, 51, was convicted of nearly 400 counts and could face as many as 100 years in prison.

His 81-year-old father, John, who worked for his son, and former business associate Denis O'Brien, 53, could each face up to 30 years in prison.

The elder Heath was to be sentenced Friday, while the other two will be sentenced in the coming weeks.

Another business associate, Larre Schlarmann, is serving a 15-year prison term after pleading guilty in 2005 to money laundering and fraud for his involvement in the scheme.

Miller was among 1,800 people in 25 states who lost money in the scam dating back to the early 1990s. Authorities said money was solicited from new investors to pay off people who had already pumped in cash.

The company promised clients their money would go into fixed investments with little or no risk. Instead, it went to money-losing real estate and small business projects controlled by Daniel W. Heath & Associates, prosecutors said.

Some victims sold their homes and rented apartments on the advice of the company so they could invest even more, prosecutor Mike Silverman said. Some individual investments surpassed $1 million.

"These guys were phenomenal marketers and spun things to keep their victims distracted," Silverman said. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed people were this evil."

Even John Heath claims he was a victim. His attorney, Chad Firetag, said his client had so much trust in his son that he plowed his commissions back into the investments.

"I think his unwavering trust is probably why he is in the spot he's in," Firetag said. "There are things that Dan kept to himself and didn't even share with his own father and family."

Phone messages left Thursday for Daniel Heath's attorney, Barry Bernstein, and O'Brien's lawyer, Joel Renk, were not returned.

Retired electrician Joseph Risse thought he had done his due diligence before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars with Heath. He said he called other investors and checked with the Better Business Bureau. Everything appeared to check out.

But in spring 2004, he stopped receiving statements from Heath's company. Turns out the firm had been closed by a federal court after a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. The Heaths were arrested several months later.

Risse said he never received a single check.

"The air just goes out of you," said Risse, 63, of Whittier. "There's nothing you can do."

Like Risse, Miller went to a seminar hosted by Daniel Heath where he was told about the company's investments and invited to take advantage of future consultations.

Miller put some of his money into a resort in the San Bernardino Mountains after being promised annual returns of 9 percent. He said he received some monthly payments, but a large chunk of the money was never returned.

If investors had looked further, they would have found that the California Department of Corporations had served Heath's business with a 1998 order to stop selling unregistered securities without a license.

Investors have had some money returned, but a court-appointed receiver said they will get only about 22 cents on every dollar.