British born-and-raised Terry Dunne dreamt of moving to Florida, setting up shop and retiring comfortably.
But last fall, the 64-year-old’s journey overseas turned into a nightmare.
“I was planning to buy a business and obviously buying a home once I got there, but everything went wrong,” Dunne said on the phone from England on Tuesday.
Using the Internet, he had hired New Horizon’s Group, a Sarasota company that offered to help get a visa available to Britons who invest in businesses in America. Its owner, Derick Coles, promised to hold Dunne’s investment money in escrow in a SunTrust Bank account so he could make the move from England to Florida.
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Dunne attended a New Horizons Group immigration forum in a UK hotel.
The presentation was likeable.
The advice looked legitimate.
He even investigated Coles on the Internet. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, he said. So he started the application process two years ago.
“The whole setup seemed professional, and I decided there was no reason I wouldn’t go with them,” Dunne said.
Little did he know that, months after he wired his money into the escrow account, he’d still be in England without a visa and out $290,000.
When his application to live in the United States was denied last fall, he tried to get his money back.
It was gone.
So was Coles.
The U.S. Secret Service is investigating Coles’ immigration company, U.S. Secret Service Tampa field office spokesman John W. Joyce said Tuesday.
“Mr. Coles is of interest to the Secret Service; however, we are not in a position to discuss this active investigation. Perhaps we will have more in a few weeks,” Joyce wrote in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald.
So far, at least 15 families say they trusted Coles to keep their money — about $3.5 million — in his alleged escrow account, Dunne said.
“This wasn’t an investment; this was private money in what was allegedly a secure and bonded escrow account to which he should not have had access to,” Dunne said. “He went in and stole the money.”
Before U.S. Immigration considers a business visa, investment funds must be deposited into a U.S. escrow account.
“Coles allegedly had an escrow account and offered himself as an escrow agent,” Dunne said. “When the time was right, I transferred the $290,000 into his so-called escrow account.”
But Dunne claims that Coles and the attorney working for his company, Jack D. King, did not place proper security protections on the account Coles created.
“As far as Coles’ victims are concerned, King is accused of being delinquent in his responsibility toward his clients for not advising that the escrow accounts were bogus,” Dunne said.
Dunne said the victims are angry and want Coles held accountable for his alleged actions.
About a week after he discovered his money was missing, Dunne started a Web site, derickcoles.com, to urge other victims to contact the U.S. Secret Service.
“It’s amazing how much info has come forth from my Web site,” he said.
The site includes a photo of Derick Coles.
Above it reads: “New Horizons Group Three Million Dollar Theft Turns Dreams Into Nightmares!”
Dunne said other former customers of Coles are worse off than him.
Some of them got their visas, sold their homes, packed their bags and came to Florida.
But when they went to their banks and attorneys, they found the money was gone.
“They are marooned in Florida,” Dunne said.
When they alerted local authorities, they were told the investigation was out of their jurisdiction.
No complaints have been filed in Manatee County, said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow.
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office received two complaints regarding Coles in late November.
David Farrow lives in England, but has a home in Orlando. He told a deputy he was in the process of receiving a visa through New Horizon’s Group, according to the Nov. 19 sheriff’s report.
On the phone from his Orlando home Tuesday, Farrow said he wired $537,000 on Aug. 12 from his bank account in London to a Sarasota SunTrust bank account.
On Nov. 14, he was informed Coles had closed his account. Coles, he said, removed everything, according to the report.
“He’s ran away with all our money,” said Farrow.
A Nov. 23 sheriff’s report states Chris Durkin, who lives in the UK and has a home in Sarasota, gave Coles $250,000 to arrange for Durkin to purchase a jewelry store on Longboat Key and secure a visa for him.
The money was supposed to be in an escrow account at the same SunTrust Bank to which Farrow talked.
But when Durkin contacted the bank Nov. 21, an employee said the money had been withdrawn and that the bank’s fraud division was looking into the matter, the report states.
A sheriff’s spokeswoman said both complaints were passed on to the U.S. Secret Service.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is assisting the Secret Service in its investigation into Coles’ immigration company.
Tampa-based ICE spokesman James P. Judge confirmed Tuesday.
Dunne learned about the financial heist after his application to live in the United States was denied.
“It wasn’t me that didn’t get the visa, it was the business,” he said.
“In my case, they didn’t like one or two aspects of the business and refused. They said, don’t let that put you off, try again.”
So on Nov, 17, he tried to have the escrow funds returned and found all their offices were closed.
“I realized something was amiss,” he said.
He e-mailed King and eventually got an e-mail message that said Coles had absconded with all the funds from his escrow account, Dunne said.
When reached by phone Tuesday, King declined comment and referred questions to his Sarasota-based attorney, Martin Garcia.
Garcia’s secretary said he was in New York. He did not return a phone call.
New Horizons Group had U.K. and U.S. offices, including one in Sarasota at 2555 Porter Lake Drive, Suite 102. The building was vacant Tuesday and the phone line was busy during each contact attempt.
Coles could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
His son, who runs a consulting company in Florida, did not return a phone call made to his business line.
It’s likely, Dunne said, there are other customers out there who have fallen prey and chosen not to tell him or alert authorities.
Farrow, an inspector with Metropolitan Special Police Force in London, caught up to Coles on a flight from Cyprus to Heathrow Airport last month.
“He and his wife were sitting two rows behind me — you couldn’t have scripted it,” he said.
Farrow said he asked the captain to use the plane’s satellite phone and had a London police officer escort Coles off the plane when it landed.
The officer questioned him for an hour, but had to let him go because there was not a warrant for his arrest,” Farrow said.
Coles, Farrow said, is originally from England.
Natalie Alund, legal affairs reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7095.