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Man’s $13.2M Ponzi scheme hits Manatee

MANATEE — He shared Christmas dinners with them.

He took them sailing.

But under the guise of friendship, he robbed them of millions.

Richard Taft Johnson, 67, a part-time Manatee resident, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison this week after he took more than $4 million from five Manatee County residents in a Ponzi scheme claiming he was the president of an investment company, according to state authorities.

Johnson, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., worked out of his waterfront Bradenton condominium and lured five local residents, four of whom are older than 65, into making bogus investments in a low-risk fund between 2003 and 2009, according to released statements.

“This guy was the ultimate con artist. All the victims I spoke to in Manatee County believed he was doing a great service,” said Florida Division of Insurance Fraud Detective Dave Lindsay, who investigated Johnson while working with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

Aside from telling people their investment would provide a competitive return, Johnson also told people their money would be tax deferred, investors’ principal would be secure and could be withdrawn at any time.

Under the name American Charitable Program, Johnson also purported the investment included the purchase of an insurance policy that would provide future benefits to a charity or nonprofit organization such as universities or religious organizations, according to court documents.

Johnson was never licensed to sell insurance in the state of Florida and his company was never registered to do business, Lindsay said.

“Had anyone done some basic checks, they would have realized everything he was telling them was not true,” Lindsay said. “But that’s what con artists do, they gain people’s confidence.”

The investigation kicked off when an investor needed to withdraw his money — approximately half a million dollars — for personal reasons and Johnson never returned phone calls. The man reported the incident to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

Lindsay, who was working locally in Manatee County and housed with the sheriff’s office economic crimes unit, pulled Johnson’s bank records.

After careful investigation, he went to arrest Johnson at his condo. However, Johnson, who became aware of the investigation, packed up his belongings and moved them to a storage unit, Lindsay said.

Johnson, who had fled back to Michigan, later went with an attorney to turn himself in at an FBI office in Detroit after Lindsay made contact with his son. Johnson contacted Lindsay via phone and federal prosecutors became interested in the case in May 2009.

When the investigation was completed, there were more than 130 investors from several states in which he took $13.2 million.

He went so far as to make fake periodic statements for investors showing gains in some cases reaching 38 percent returns, Lindsay said.

Johnson, who was sentenced Monday in federal court in Michigan, also was ordered to pay back millions in restitution to the victims. An attorney was appointed by the court to determine what assets he may have to liquidate.

“I am deeply ashamed of the betrayal of my clients’ trust. Many of them were long standing friends and I betrayed them,” Johnson wrote in an Acceptance of Responsibility form in court documents. “I have terrible regret for the ... financial loss I have caused. I am very, very sorry. It was the worst mistake of my life. ... I would give anything if I could make things right.”

Johnson’s investors included: a divorced 62-year-old housewife who invested $600,000 from her ex-husband into the fund, a retired commercial airline pilot who heaped his nest egg into the fund after years of flying, and another a snowbird from Holland who deposited earnings from selling a commercial company.

Several of the victims persuaded family members to invest with Johnson. One local man persuaded his sister and her husband to cash in their struggling 401K plans and sink all their money into the fund.

Both had plans to retire, but have to continue working, Lindsay said.

“These people are in a bad situation,” Lindsay said. “Some of them could end up destitute.”

Johnson, who will be 72 when he is released, also has to serve three years of supervised probation when his prison term is completed. He has no prior criminal record, according to court documents.

The scheme worked for years when Johnson paid earlier investors or investors who demanded their money with money he received from new clients. However, by 2008 the scheme began to unravel.

Johnson used a significant portion of the money to purchase personal vehicles, yachts, and take vacations, Lindsay said.

“To my knowledge, the only thing he was sorry about was getting caught,” Lindsay said. “He lived a good life with other people’s money for quite a while.”