Jones, 55, a record producer in Marina del Rey, California, and his two partners had raised more than $50 million from 735 investors, which they said they were using to broker the sale to Arab buyers of 20,000 tons of gold owned by a group of Israelis. They promised to triple investors’ money -- if only Tri Energy could overcome some last-minute glitches.
All the company needed to close the deal, Jones said on the Dec. 20, 2004, conference call, taped by one of the participants, was a “safe-passage letter” that would cost $450,000. A few days later, on another call, he said Tri Energy had to come up with $100,000 to open a “commission account.” Then, on Jan. 15, 2005, a new request: The bank handling the deal wanted $125,000 to conduct an audit.
Like those caught up in other get-rich scams -- from Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, which initially snared wealthy Jews, to an alleged $4.4 million fraud aimed at deaf people -- Tri Energy’s investors had something in common. Many were Mormons and born-again Christians who shared dreams and prayers on nightly conference calls. They vowed to use the profits for charitable works and kept raising funds, at times taking out second mortgages, draining retirement accounts and recruiting relatives.