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TOP STORY: HSI Tampa, partners bust international investment fraud scheme

HSI Tampa, partners bust international investment fraud scheme
HSI Tampa, partners bust international investment fraud scheme

The investigation began seven years ago. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) received a call from the City of London Police. Victims were coming out of the woodwork. They had been duped into investing thousands – some their whole life savings – into an international investment fraud and money laundering scheme with ties to central Florida.

The scheme was complicated. A pair of Houston attorneys – Roger Lee Shoss and Nicolette Loisel – resurrected dormant, publicly-traded companies in the United States. The companies had stock trading symbols and CUSIP (Committee on Uniform Security Identification Procedures) numbers, but what investors didn't know was the companies were not operational. They were mere shells of the former companies, hijacked by fraudsters to perpetuate the investment scheme.

"This way, if the average investor did some research on the company, it appeared to be legitimate," said Susan McCormick, special agent in charge of HSI Tampa, which investigated the case with the U.S. Secret Service and the City of London Police.

Shoss and Loisel then sold these empty-shell companies to Paul Robert Gunter, a resident of Odessa, Fla., and formerly of London. Gunter, with assistance from two co-conspirators, Richard Sinclair Pope and Simon Andrew Odoni, looped in boiler room telemarketers, mostly based in Spain, to sell stock in these companies. The telemarketers used high-pressure and misleading sales techniques to lure potential investors. Thousands of victim-investors wired more than $127 million to bank accounts in central Florida associated with the scheme.

As special agents conducted their investigation, they realized that several of these bank accounts were tied to Gunter. He and his co-conspirators used the money in these accounts to purchase homes across the globe, an airplane, boats, vehicles and more.

"These three defendants had no qualms with preying on innocent victims – many of them elderly U.K. citizens – to further their own assets," said McCormick.

On Tuesday, Gunter, Odoni and Pope were sentenced for their roles in the scheme. Gunter was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Odoni and Pope, both of Herfordshire, United Kingdom, received 13 years and 4 months in prison and four years and nine months in prison, respectively. Shoss and Loisel were previously sentenced to 18 months and 12 months, respectively.

One additional defendant, Larry Hartman, a U.S. lawyer who resided in Costa Rica prior to his arrest, and formerly of New York and Florida, still faces charges associated with the scheme. In May, he was arrested by Nicaraguan authorities on an immigration violation. He was subsequently expelled and deported from Nicaragua and turned over to U.S. authorities to face charges.

"Unfortunately, this sentencing will not repair the huge damage they caused to the lives of thousands of people who were simply looking for a safe place to invest their money, but hopefully it will bring a measure of comfort and a sense of closure to those caught up in what was fraud committed on a truly significant scale," said City of London Detective Inspector Kerrie Gower.